When Al Ferguson of Al and Chuck Travel shut town his travel, tour and cruise company last October, he took to Facebook to promise his customers no one would lose a dime because he had the “hard assets to cover their losses.”
It never happened.
The closed travel agency is now saddled with hundreds of consumer complaints and is instead being investigated by the state attorney general’s office for consumer fraud.
Lawyers for Al and Chuck’s travel agency, Legendary Journeys, have now filed a legal petition titled an ‘Assignment for the Benefit of Creditors.’ It lists over $3 million in potential claims, which they hope can be satisfied by selling off their assets, including real estate they claim is worth at least two million dollars. When they shut their doors, they had less than $3,000 in their accounts.
The Attorney General’s office already had an open investigation ongoing under the Florida Deceptive and Practices Act when it filed a legal action against the travel agency in December in the Sarasota circuit court.
The Department of Legal Affairs for Pam Bondi’s office had sought a petition for a judicial order compelling the travel agency to comply with its investigative subpoenas inquiring into multiple allegations of consumer fraud.
In its complaint, the attorney general’s office stated that under its authority as a law enforcement agency it had received “at least 140 complaints from consumers regarding Al and Chuck’s business practices during the time period of January 1, 2017, through December 15, 2017,” the date they filed the petition.
At the time of the filing, the complaints detailed consumer losses of over $150,000, specifically including allegations that consumers did not receive the purchased travel services. Since the revelations and a subsequent consumer alert issued by Attorney General Bondi’s office on Jan. 25, the complaints and number of losses have grown.
The December legal action in Sarasota was precipitated by Al and Chuck’s failure to respond on a timely basis to investigative subpoenas that the attorney general had issued on Nov. 14, 2017 less than a month after the travel agency closed its doors. The complaint cites the travel agency’s failure to comply with the subpoena as grounds for the petition to compel compliance.
Unfortunately, for all the creditors and consumers who had been promised refunds by Jan. 1, 2018, Al and Chuck’s instead filed a 50 page petition in Sarasota Circuit Court on January 12 titled an ‘Assignment for the Benefit of Creditors.’
This is essentially a state bankruptcy petition, assigning all the company’s assets to a third party trustee, who garners and gathers up the company’s holdings, and then pays off as many creditors as he can with the monies collected, and to the extent that funds are available to do so.
If the full amount of the funds owed are not sufficient to meet the company’s obligations, the trustee would divide the remaining assets on a pro rata basis, and in proportion to their priority as set forth in Florida Statues. It does not bode well for the consumers and creditors who have sustained losses.
Consumers should file their complaints with the assignor, Larry S. Hyman, in Case No-2018-CA-000207 in the Sarasota court. There are time constraints. Right now, the cutoff date is May 14 so the number of outstanding claims can rise beyond the three million dollars now listed.
“It’s particularly disappointing for all of us,” said Blaise Boston of Wilton Manors, whose husband lost a deposit for their honeymoon cruise. “Since he closed in October, he has been holding press conferences, doing Interviews, and posting notices on Facebook about how we all would be paid back, and by December 30 at that.”
Indeed, in early November Ferguson had told Sarasota’s Channel 10 that “Legendary Journeys has more assets than the deposits lost. This is a heartbreaking moment for me, but all will be refunded," he said.
On Dec. 1, 2017, Ferguson went on Facebook and published a detailed 8-point plan outlining how all customers could find their financial outlays redeemed, promising “as much clarity and transparency as possible,” stating while “this is a difficult time for us, great progress is being made to resolve all issues.”
Then, on Jan. 2 Sarasota’s NBC station did a follow up, only to learn that scores of customers were still out hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Ferguson could no longer be reached for comment.
Customer after customer of Legendary Journeys all shared similar stories with NBC correspondent Rachel Polansky.
While leading on customers in press releases, he was also misleading the Attorney General, whose December court action outlined how the agency had failed to comply with the investigative subpoenas he had been served with in November.
Despite all his problems, Ferguson had boasted about his business practices, going out of his way to say everyone “was being taken care of.”
That never happened.
A cursory review revealed over 150 complaints had been filed against the company at the Sarasota Better Business Bureau. The complaints led to the Attorney General’s formal inquiry.
Those hurt include gay vacationers and elderly consumers intending to celebrate their anniversaries on cruises.
"Our $7,500 deposit was for our 50th wedding anniversary," said Jerry Ross, Punta Gorda resident.
Enraged consumers have been posting their complaints online, outlining the fraud they think is unconscionable. For example, at one site, PissedConsumer.org, a customer notes that Ferguson’s company accepted a $17,032 deposit for a March, 2019 cruise on Oct. 17, 2017, one day before he closed the company. The customer says he has contacted the FBI alleging interstate theft.
The impact in South Florida has been great. The Al and Chuck cruises brought packed tour buses weekly to Wilton Manors and South Beach hospitality establishments as launching pads for their Caribbean journeys, filling nightclubs with high-rolling, cash-spending partygoers. It even opened a Manors based office.
After closing last October, Ferguson personally authored an extensive explanation on Facebook, attempting to shed light on why the company crumbled, but assuring all that he would oversee personally refunds to all concerned.
Ferguson’s statement said his problems were due to extensive “employee theft,” hurricanes and storms in the Caribbean, along with unwise business projections for a Cuba expansion. Terrorism, too, he said was a factor in impacting his company’s diminishing returns.
The claimed losses now appear to total hundreds of thousands of dollars. Court proceedings in Sarasota will eventually disclose the actual number of consumers impacted and dollars lost.
Sarasota’s Channel 2 reported on Jan. 15 that there are now pending 162 complaints against Legendary Journeys for 2017 alone, and that “Ferguson could not give a single straight answer as to where the money has gone.”
Kylie Mason, press secretary for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, could only offer generic travel tips for consumers to consider in making future plans.
She told SFGN that use of a credit card is preferred when booking a trip to help challenge charges if trip fails to materialize. Checking a tour provider’s references with the Better Business Bureau is also advised.
When in business, Al and Chuck Travel advertised as “Creating the Planet’s #1 Gay Vacations!”
Today, its only comment is "The closure of Legendary Journeys is now handled through the legal process of attorneys and accountants and the court bankruptcy system."
Consumers victimized by travel related business can call the OAG fraud hotline at 1-866-9-NO-SCAM or file a complaint at www.MyFloridaLegal.com
John McDonald also contributed to this report.