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Press Release

Former Charter Airline Executive Sentenced to Nearly Eight Years in Prison for Orchestrating Multimillion Dollar Scheme to Steal Passenger Money from Escrow

For Immediate Release
Office of Public Affairs

The former vice president of a now-bankrupt public air charter operator was sentenced to 94 months in prison today for her role in a scheme to steal millions of dollars in passenger money for future travel from an escrow account, announced Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and Regional Special Agent in Charge Douglas Shoemaker of the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of the Inspector General’s (DOT-OIG).

Kay Ellison, 58, of Edenton, North Carolina, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Susan D. Wigenton of the District of New Jersey, who presided over the trial.  Judge Wigenton also ordered the defendant to pay $19.6 million in restitution.  Ellison and her co-defendant, Judy Tull, 73, also of Edenton, were both convicted on March 28, after a seven-day trial, of one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud affecting financial institutions and to commit bank fraud, four counts of wire fraud affecting financial institutions and three counts of bank fraud.  Ellison is the former vice president and managing partner of Myrtle Beach Direct Air and Tours (Direct Air), which was headquartered in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with operations in Daniels, West Virginia, and Tull is its former CEO.  Tull is scheduled to be sentenced at a later date.

“Kay Ellison stole tens of millions of dollars of passenger money in a brazen scheme that put a veneer of success on a failing company, and left others holding the bag—until today,” said Assistant Attorney General Benczkowski.  “Her sentence sends a powerful deterrent message—especially to corporate executives—and demonstrates the commitment of the Criminal Division and its law enforcement partners to uncovering and vigorously prosecuting corporate fraud wherever it is found.”

“The sentencing in this investigation demonstrates that the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General is committed to stopping charter flight operators who intentionally mislead and defraud the traveling public for personal gain,” said DOT-OIG Regional Special Agent in Charge Shoemaker.  “Together with the Department of Justice, we will continue to vigorously pursue and prosecute fraud that erodes consumer confidence in the integrity of transportation-related goods and services.”

According to evidence presented at trial, from October 2007 through March 2012, Ellison and Tull engaged in a scheme to steal passengers’ money for future travel from an escrow account by artificially inflating the amount of money that the defendants claimed they were entitled to receive, and by sending this falsified amount in a letter to the escrow bank telling the escrow bank to release the money.  The evidence further established that to cover up their fraud, the defendants falsified profit and loss statements to make the company look like it was making money rather than losing money, and sent these falsified documents to credit card companies and banks to trick them into continuing to do business with the company.

Testimony at trial established that two financial institutions incurred losses of nearly $30 million for having to refund thousands of passengers their money that should have been held for them in escrow, but was actually stolen by the defendants as part of their fraud.

Robert Keilman, 73, of Marlboro, New Jersey, Direct Air’s former chief financial officer, pleaded guilty to charges stemming from his role in this scheme and will be sentenced separately. 

This case was investigated by DOT-OIG.  Trial Attorneys Cory E. Jacobs and Michael T. O’Neill of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section are prosecuting the case. 

The Criminal Division’s Fraud Section plays a pivotal role in the Department of Justice’s fight against complex white collar crime around the country.

Updated November 28, 2018

Financial Fraud
Press Release Number: 18-1566