MOUNT HOLLY — The wife of accused travel scammer Daryl Turner has been offered a plea deal in exchange for testimony against her husband, a state prosecutor said today.
Robyn Bernstein, who is facing up to 20 years in prison over charges that she and her husband bilked hundreds of thousands of dollars from hopeful travelers, did not immediately accept the deal at an arraignment hearing this morning in Superior Court in Burlington County.
Sitting apart from her husband in the courtroom, she pleaded not guilty to several felony charges, including money laundering and conspiracy.
Deputy attorney general Mark Kurzawa told the court that the state offered Bernstein a plea deal. In exchange for her testimony, she would serve four years in state prison and pay $2.6 million in restitution. She also would be barred from working in the travel business in New Jersey and would have to forfeit any assets previously seized by state authorities, Kurzawa said.
The state alleges that travel clubs owned and operated by Turner and Bernstein took money from would-be travelers, but the pair never delivered the exotic discounted vacations customers were promised.
The couple allegedly laundered more than $700,000 from their illegitimate businesses, using the funds to buy a luxury home in Marlton. The state put a lien against the home when Turner was first arrested in July 2011. Public records show it was worth $751,300 in 2011. The state also seized eight bank accounts, five luxury cars and a speedboat.
Bernstein currently is charged with first-degree conspiracy and first-degree money laundering, each of which carries a 10- to 20-year prison term and fines of up to $700,000. She also is charged with two counts of second-degree theft-by-deception, which carries prison terms of five to 10 years and a fine of up to $150,000, and one count of third-degree failure to file a state income tax return.
Her bail was set at $75,000 with no 10 percent option. She was also required to give up her passport.
Turner faces identical charges, except the state has charged him with four counts of failure to file a state income tax return.
At today’s hearing, a weary-looking Bernstein sat apart from her husband. She was dressed in gray pants and a ruffled black blouse. Turner wore a dark pin-striped suit, a blue tie and pocket handkerchief and black Prada eyeglasses.
Charges were not read against Turner today. When Judge Terrence Cook asked if he had retained counsel, Turner said, “I can’t afford it. They have all of my funds.”
Turner said his application for a public defender had been denied. The judge then said he can reapply, or otherwise represent himself or hire a private attorney.
“I’ve called a couple and they all want…” Turner said, before trailing off.
He declined to comment after the proceeding.
Bernstein’s attorney, Adam Malamut, said state prosecutors have provided him with “voluminous discovery” information, and said they have “a heavy burden in proving my client’s guilt.”
Asked if Bernstein was considering the state’s offer, Malamut said, “We’ve neither accepted nor rejected the deal.”
He also said, “A lot of the complaints stem from dissatisfied customers, but many many many customers received refunds even prior to the criminal charges.”
Both Bernstein and Turner are due back in court on July 8 for a status hearing.
Customers of the defunct travel clubs, which went by nearly a dozen different names, have waited for more than four years to see Turner’s day in court.
The businesses, going under names including Dreamworks Vacation Club, Bentley Travel, Modern Destinations Unlimited, Blue Water Gateway, Five Points Travel Company, La Bonne Vie Travel and Vacation Clubs LLC, all ran a similar operation, the state said.
A club would offer steeply discounted vacations for customer who would buy membership in the club, which would cost from $2,200 to $6,500. The Star-Ledger’s Bamboozled column spoke to some customers who paid as much as $9,000.
But when the customers tried to book trips, they were told their dates were unavailable, or they were unable to reach the club.
That’s because after being in business and collecting money for several months, the clubs would shut down and reopen under another name, the state alleged.
After the state filed several complaints against Turner, he signed a February 2011 settlement with the Division of Consumer Affairs, agreeing to pay of more than $3 million, including $2.2 million in restitution to customers, but the state said he never paid a penny.
Though the agreement barred Turner from the travel business in New Jersey, the Bamboozled column reported he was linked to more travel companies in the state after the settlement. Consumers in other states, including Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Hampshire, complained to those states’ attorneys general about similarly-operated travel businesses allegedly linked to Turner.
To date, New Jersey has received more than 700 complaints from customers. Some paid hundreds of dollars. Others paid thousands. They all say they received nothing for their money.