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Non-Revenue Must Ride Vouchers Scandal

Couple sentenced in airline vouchers scandal  Nov 21, 2008

A former Bexar County bailiff and an ex-employee of Southwest Airlines were sentenced Thursday to 2 1/2 years in prison for a scandal in which more than 5,000 stolen airline vouchers were sold at the courthouse and beyond.

James Jackson, 41, and his wife, Althea Holden Jackson, apologized for their actions to U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia.

Althea Jackson was an administrative assistant for the airline in Dallas and took the ticket vouchers -- which allows the holder to get on a plane even on short notice to anywhere the airline flies -- over several months. Then she and her husband sold them for $120 each, even though the vouchers clearly say they are not for resale.

Some of the tickets, also known as Non-Revenue Must Ride vouchers or green passes because of their color, were bought or obtained by judges, lawyers and county officials. The tickets are reserved for people who are inconvenienced or assist the airline in medical emergencies, for example. In some cases, the cost of a regular ticket, if someone walked in to the counter and bought it, would have been $700 or so.

The Jacksons pleaded guilty in February to wire fraud. Federal sentencing guidelines recommended a sentence between 33 months to 41 months. However, the Jacksons' plea deals lowered that bar to a range of 24 months to 30 months.

The judge said he was not pleased with the plea agreements, but accepted them, and then sentenced each of the Jacksons to 30 months, the highest term under the deals.

He also ordered them to pay $800,000 total in restitution. The loss was estimated to be more than $1.1 million, but Southwest, prosecutors and the Jacksons' lawyer agreed that the restitution should be $800,000 instead.

"You know and I know you're not going to pay that," Garcia told James Jackson. "I'm not being disrespectful, I'm being realistic."

The judge told him, and later his wife, that they still would have to pay what they could.

The case started in December 2005, when Secret Service agents descended on the Bexar County Courthouse and the adjacent Cadena Reeves Justice Center to track the path of some 5,600 ticket vouchers that Southwest reported as stolen. The investigation eventually uncovered that some of the people the Jacksons had given or sold tickets to were reselling them as well.

Among those who bought or received the tickets were District Attorney Susan Reed, First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg, County Court At Law No. 7 Judge Monica Guerrero, County Court At Law No. 8 Judge Karen Crouch, District Clerk Margaret Montemayor and several prosecutors, lawyers, staff and others who do business at the courthouse.

James Jackson was Guerrero's bailiff, and resigned after the feds's visit to the courthouse.

Initially, the Jacksons and eight other people, including Bexar County deputies or bailiffs, were charged with conspiracy to commit access device fraud. But Judge Garcia later dismissed the charges after defense lawyers successfully argued that the law everyone was charged under applied to debit or credit cards, not the vouchers.

With the case gutted, federal prosecutors then forged the plea deals with the Jacksons with a different charge of wire fraud.

"We're happy to bring this part of the case to a conclusion for Southwest Airlines and for the Jacksons," said Assistant U.S. Attorney David Counts.

Some of the original defendants claimed prosecutors favored some people who obtained tickets, such as Reed's driver, Mark Gudanowski, because he was never charged. In February, the Express-News published a story detailing a previously undisclosed investigation memo that showed James Jackson told agents that Gudanowski bought 50 tickets. The memo also said Jackson gave instructions to Gudanowski, as he did to several others, on what storyline to give in case the airline ever asked where the vouchers came from (such as because of lost luggage, or that a friend worked for the airline).

But the U.S. Attorney's Office flatly denies any impropriety, and has said it could not prove that most of the people who traveled on the ticket vouchers knew they were stolen.

"There's been no favoritism," Counts said.

When asked if the case is over, Counts said: "No comment."

Couple sentenced in airline vouchers scandal
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