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Caveat Emptor: A Cautionary Tale for Schools

I just ran across this federal appeals court opinion from last week in a criminal case, and I think it is a great cautionary tale for schools.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, on April 7 upheld the mail-fraud conviction of a man who bilked a number of schools, teachers, and parents in the Miami area out of money for tickets to a Christmas pagaent that never took place.

According to court papers, David Lee Ellisor approached public and private school teachers in the fall of 2003 to urge them to take their students on a field trip to a "Christmas From Around the World extravaganza," which was to be held in a hotel convention hall and feature a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to meet foreign diplomats from Washington, who were purportedly to attend the show to highlight their countries' Christmas traditions.

Teachers from at least 23 schools ordered tickets to the show, for which Ellisor also promised a meal, educational scavenger hunts, live reindeer, and other attractions, court papers say. Many of the schools collected $10 per student and made checks payable to a bank account Ellisor controlled. The organizer also distributed raffle tickets to the schools, promising prizes to raffle winners and offering extra tickets to students who made ornaments for the Christmas trees at the event.

At one school, Ellisor arrived to pick up a check for $2,260 and the principal was concerned about his "disheveled appearance," the court papers say, but Ellisor reassured the principal the Christmas show would exceed students' expectations. (Ellisor had been in discussion with caterers, a Christmas retailer, and the hotel, but at least one of his checks to reserve the hall bounced.)

By now, you know where this is headed. On the day of the show, students arrived at the hotel hall to find locked doors. Ellisor, meanwhile, had removed more than $38,000 in funds from the account and soon bought a used Jaguar 393, asking the owner whether she was sure it "could make it to the Carolinas," the court papers say. He left a telephone message for inquiring parties that said the event had been postponed.

Ellisor was indicted on eight counts of mail fraud, and he turned himself in to authorities in 2004, pleading not guilty. At his trial, the government presented evidence that included a U.S. Department of State security agent who testified that Ellisor was not, as he had claimed, a diplomatic liaison and that no group of ambassadors was planning to visit Miami in December 2003.

Testifying on his own behalf, Ellisor maintained his claim that he was in close contact with numerous foreign embassies but that tickets to his Christmas show contained a disclaimer that said "specific ambassadors may or may not appear." He also testified that the show had to be canceled because it was undersubscribed, although the appeals court noted that there was no evidence Ellisor had made an effort to contact those who had purchased tickets to tell them it was canceled.

Ellisor was convicted of the eight counts of mail fraud in February 2005 by a federal jury and sentenced to more than seven years in prison and to pay more than $38,000 in restititution.

The 11th Circuit panel affirmed the conviction in all respects.

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