By Bruce Piper
Last month a Darwin court case gave an insight into Flight Centre’s involvement in the controversial long-running Northern Territory pensioner travel rort. While the company has long affirmed its cooperation with authorities over the matter, the conviction of former Flight Centre staffer Vanessa Barrett came with some graphic testimony about “common practice” within the branch where she worked in Palmerston between 2011 and 2013.
Barrett admitted to submitting 169 false invoices with inflated flight costs for reimbursement by the NT Health Department, when the actual cost of tickets purchased on behalf of pensioner clients was actually much cheaper. The fraud in this case amounted to $110,000, with the prosecutor claiming the additional income went to Flight Centre, and Barrett receiving a $4,000 bonus as a result. The court also heard that Flight Centre had already repaid $1.8 million to the NT government to settle a separate civil dispute about the practice of submitting inflated invoices.
Previous convictions relating to similar activity have included high profile Darwin agent Xana Kamitsis and Travelworld Katherine owner Tennille Foley — who at her sentencing last year said she had been “first introduced to the process of submitting inflated invoices” when she had worked with Flight Centre in the early 2000s. The NT government probe only looked at activities since 2011. During the most recent case, Barrett’s lawyer described the false invoicing practice as “widespread” and often discussed at Flight Centre staff meetings — while the prosecutor noted that “everyone was doing it, but that doesn’t make this individual less culpable”. For her part, Barrett is said to be “absolutely devastated and destroyed” by the situation.
If, as is claimed, the practice was widespread within Flight Centre, the company’s NT staffers should be feeling fairly nervous at the moment. Despite the company’s cooperation with investigators, this conviction confirms that police continue to aggressively pursue cases against individuals who, if the evidence is correct, were following procedures acquiesced to (at the very least) by Flight Centre middle management.
MEANWHILE on a happier note, I am thrilled to confirm that the Business Publishing Group — owner of travelBulletin, Travel Daily, Cruise Weekly and Business Events News, will now produce the annual AFTA Travel Pages. This long-running annual publication, officially endorsed by AFTA and circulated to travel agents, suppliers and key industry stakeholders across the country, will be revamped before we release the next edition early next year — including the welcome addition of an industry supplier directory which will make it an indispensable reference.