Customers left holding the bag
by Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer
More than 200 people — mainly from O'ahu's Filipino community — who lost money purchasing airline tickets from Coloma's Travel Service in Downtown Honolulu likely have little chance of recovering losses from the defunct company, whose owner is now being prosecuted for theft.
Coloma's Travel, at 1137 River St., shut down in December. Last month, the Honolulu prosecutor's office charged company owner Ligaya Coloma Baldugo with 49 counts of theft on behalf of customers who filed police complaints over tickets they paid for but never received.
The 49 counts of second-degree theft, a felony, represent only about a quarter of ticket customers who are owed money, according to a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition filed in August by Baldugo and her husband, Rolando.
According to the bankruptcy filing, the Baldugos owe creditors $1 million. Of that, roughly $600,000 involved customers who bought airline tickets from Coloma's Travel, which largely focused on trips to and from the Philippines.
Maximino Ildefonso of 'Aiea said his family lost nearly $10,000 on 10 tickets to the Philippines never delivered by Coloma's Travel. "I cannot help but cry," he said.
Though Ildefonso prays that somehow his family's loss will be repaid, the 72-year-old knows the chances aren't good.
David Farmer, an attorney appointed to represent the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in locating assets that could help repay creditors, said his review of Coloma's Travel records shows that Baldugo used customer payments for various purposes instead of keeping the money in client trust accounts as required by law.
"She was just using the money like it was hers," he said. "It bled to anonymous quarters. It's a nasty, nasty case."
Farmer said Baldugo has refused to explain what happened to customer payments, and that a search he has conducted that included traveling to the Philippines to search for potential assets has turned up nothing of value.
"We're doing everything we can to turn over any rock we can identify," he said. "I'm not frightfully optimistic about our recovering any assets."
Gregory Dunn, a bankruptcy attorney representing Baldugo, didn't respond to a request to comment on the case.
Baldugo is in custody, unable to post $75,000 bail.
Baldugo and her husband, a taxi driver, reported holding about $11,000 in personal property, including life insurance policies and household goods that under bankruptcy law would be exempt from creditor claims. They also reported having a $369,100 mortgage on a Middle Street home valued at $159,733, and about $50,000 in credit card debt.
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Business income from Baldugo's travel agency was $66,429 in 2007, then fell to $19,783 in 2008 and then $0 last year, the bankruptcy petition said. Coloma's Travel had been in business since 1993, the filing said.
According to the charges filed by the city, Baldugo failed to deliver tickets purchased between April 2008 and December 2009.
In many instances, Baldugo issued customers a receipt and itinerary but didn't purchase the tickets from an airline, the city prosecutor's charges said.
In one instance, a customer checking with Philippine Airlines about their upcoming trip was told the reservations were canceled for nonpayment, according to a police affidavit filed in the case. The affidavit said the customer followed up on the cancellation with Baldugo, who claimed to have paid for the tickets and blamed the airline for the trouble. However, after being rebooked on the flight, the customer again was told by the airline that tickets hadn't been purchased.
The case has similarities to one that unfolded about a decade ago in which Jimmy's Travel owner James K.S. Lee bilked roughly 1,300 customers out of $908,000 over Las Vegas trips.
Lee had started his business in January 1998, but closed five months later. After filing for bankruptcy, Lee pleaded guilty to theft and was sentenced to six months in prison and five years of probation. As part of the conviction, his bankruptcy case was discharged and he was ordered to make restitution to his victims.
Jim Fulton, spokesman for the prosecutor's office, said anyone who paid Coloma's Travel for tickets they never received can still file a complaint with police.
A deadline to file a claim in Baldugo's bankruptcy case has been extended to Feb. 26.