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TCRC head aims to open up Calif. fund meetings

TCRC head aims to open up Calif. fund meetings 
Originally Published here:
http://www.travelweekly.com/articles.aspx?articleid=31326
 
 
By Laura Del Rosso
SAN DIEGO -- Antoine Georges wants to let a little sunshine in on the inner workings of the Travel Consumer Restitution Corp. (TCRC), the entity in charge of doling out refunds to California residents financially hurt by California travel firms.

Georges, co-owner of the Happy Traveler here, is the new president of the TCRC. He is one of four travel agents serving two-year terms on the TCRC board, elected by the 5,000 registered travel sellers in California.

Vocal critic

Georges has been a vocal critic of the travel seller law, making clear his opposition to the measure in statements that appeared in TCRC election material. They included his argument that the law is "unfair taxation targeting travel agents."

And yet he won a second term this spring and was elected by his fellow board members to the top TCRC post, despite his record of opposition to the underlying law.

As an officer with the San Diego ASTA chapter, Georges was instrumental in steering the chapter to break from the other ASTA chapters in California and oppose the Seller of Travel law, which brought the TCRC to fruition in 1996.

Now, as president of the restitution corporation, Georges said he has a chance to do what he has long been hoping to do: open up the TCRC meetings to the press and the industry so that the decisions of the board -- which can cost travel agents in California up to $350 in annual assessments -- are made public.

"My obligation is to open up the process rather than keep this a closed-door organization," he said.

In the past, TCRC presidents have said that board decisions needed to be kept private to protect the travel companies involved.

Georges said there could be ways to keep the names of the people private while making the meetings -- and the decisions -- public.

Including agents

He said he plans to look for ways to include the press and agents in the TCRC's monthly teleconference meetings and annual face-to-face meetings. At these meetings, the board reviews written communications from consumers and travel sellers regarding claims and votes on them.

He argues that travel agents have been subjected to "taxation without representation" because of the closed-door nature of the TCRC, which Georges said has $2.9 million in its coffers, raised from assessments of registered California travel firms.

The fund has paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to consumers for tour operators and travel agencies that have gone out of business over the last six years.

Georges said he does not believe in the TCRC program because he thinks it puts travel agents in the position of covering for companies that were mismanaged.

"When a travel agency or tour operator files for bankruptcy, we have to step in and bail them out," he said. "It's unfair that [agents] have to insure some crook or client unhappy with their travel."

The TCRC currently is handling claims from consumers hurt by the closure of wholesaler Jet Vacations as well as several other tour operators and travel agencies that have gone out of business.

Repeat offenders

Georges also said he finds it frustrating because, in his view, the system allows agents or operators who mismanage their businesses to close down and then open up another firm and start all over again -- after the TCRC fund bailed out their consumers.

"To a certain degree, it [the restitution fund] is good because it makes travel agents look good in the eyes of consumers, but right now we're looking at an agency industry that is shrinking," he said.

"To ask the remaining travel agents to bail out companies going out of business is unfair," he said.

He also takes issue with some of the TCRC's decisions, which he believes go beyond the scope of the law.

"I believe the spirit of the law was to give a remedy to consumers when they were defrauded or victims of failed companies, but the interpretation has progressed to a point where the TCRC is being asked to get involved in contract disputes where consumers are not satisfied with some aspect of their trip. That was not the intent of the law."

The law expires in 2006, and Georges said he hopes the law is "revisited" to make it "more realistic."

"Right now," he said, "it is asking too much from travel agents."

The other board members are Barbara Jenkins-Lee, Rancho del Mar Travel, Del Mar, Calif.; Eric Munro, Travelwise, San Diego; Patricia Campbell, All About Travel, Northridge; Michael Hughes, deputy attorney general; and Evelyn Stein, a consumer appointed by the attorney general's office.

 

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ARTA welcomes sunshine plan

SAN FRANCISCO -- ARTA, which has long criticized the Travel Consumer Restitution Corp. (TCRC), welcomed TCRC president Antoine Georges' plan to open up the decision-making process of the entity's board to the public.

"It should be opened up so that watchdogs are in place," said John Hawks, ARTA president.

"There should be some outside monitoring of this fund. This isn't a state agency. This is a group with quite a bit of money to spend. We cannot always get details about who got what and how the money is spent."

ARTA's legal counsel, Alexander Anolik, compared the TCRC's decision-making process with a "Star Chamber" proceeding.

"There is no way that this quasi-judicial proceeding should have been allowed to have this amount of secrecy."

Anolik said the board needs to operate "more democratically."

"How can people vote for people [on the TCRC board] without seeing their voting records? It's taxation without representation."

Anolik suggested the TCRC board provide travel agencies and other travel companies that have claims against them with a veil of privacy by shielding their names in the proceedings and referring to cases by a file number.

"It's like with the travel agent arbiter. We took away the decision-making power from the travel agent commission, and the arbiter demanded written decisions.

"When I have a case, I can go back and see those decisions. I don't care about people's names. I just want to be able to cite precedents." -- L.D.R.