Oprah fans are still waiting for tour refunds, hearing told

Operator could not deliver on promised trip, authorities say

March 29, 2006|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

For years, Jacqueline D. Walston and her girlfriends have taken trips together - a cruise to Puerto Rico, a tour of the Harriet Tubman home in New York, a visit to Toronto.

Still, Walston could not believe her luck when she heard that a local tour bus operator was selling a travel package to Chicago and Detroit with tickets to The Oprah Winfrey Show, hotel accommodations and casino rebates.

"We weren't even interested in the casinos," Walston, 64, a retired property certification analyst with the U.S. Department of Education who lives in Northwest Washington, said yesterday. "But I've been watching Oprah for 15 years. She's a beautiful person and a beautiful spirit. She gives so much of herself and I just wanted to be a part of it."

But just days before the April 21, 2005, scheduled departure, tour operator Terrance M. Hawkins canceled the trip.

Lawyers with the state attorney general's office's Consumer Protection Division say he has yet to refund most of the payments of about 90 passengers who had paid at least part of the $375 package fee - a fact that Hawkins admitted yesterday in an administrative court hearing.

The Consumer Protection Division has ordered Hawkins, 44, of Temple Hills, to repay the more than $30,000 that he collected for the trip, mostly from elderly women lured by the promise of seeing Oprah - a promise that authorities say Hawkins had no ability to keep.

Heather Summey, the director of legal and business affairs for Harpo Productions, the company that produces The Oprah Winfrey Show, testified yesterday by speaker phone that members of the general public, as well as most businesses and corporations, are allowed no more than four tickets per person to a taping. She also testified that no one in the show's audience department had heard of either Hawkins or his businesses, Royal Travel Group and Royal Stages Inc., before being contacted by lawyers handling the case.

Representing himself at the Office of Administrative Hearings in Hunt Valley, Hawkins denied that the trip was merely a money-making scheme.

"I run trips year after year ... with huge success," he said. "I'm diligent with my trips. This just happens to be one that kind of spun outside of my control."

Hawkins testified that a man he had never met or talked to was supposed to obtain tickets to the program. Summey, the witness from the program's production company, testified that someone with the same name as that man worked for the show as a producer - for three weeks in 1995.

Hawkins also said that a friend who had contacted the man on his behalf died of a heart attack in December 2004.

Lauren Calia, an assistant attorney general, focused on the timing of that death in her questioning of Hawkins. Hawkins acknowledged that most of the money for the trip was collected in 2005 - after his contact person for the tickets had died.

Walston said she is interested in the outcome of the case beyond receiving her $375 refund.

"I don't want this to happen ever again. Not to anyone," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, this was a scam from the beginning."

The administrative court hearing is scheduled to resume tomorrow. Hawkins also has been charged criminally in Prince George's County with 17 counts of theft over $500, and is scheduled to go to trial June 5.

jennifer.mcmenamin@baltsun. com

Sun reporter Nick Shields contributed to this article.

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