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TRAVEL AGENT SENTENCED IN FRAUD CASE

Michelle Kasza, a Buffalo travel agent who admitted misusing customer credit cards to try to rejuvenate her failing business, was sentenced Friday to 16 months to four years in prison and was ordered to pay almost $500,000 in restitution to more than 300 clients.

State Supreme Court Justice Mario J. Rossetti rejected pleas from Kasza's lawyer to keep her out of prison so her mother, a Texas businesswoman, can make a $50,000 restitution repayment and get her a job to help her repay her debt.

Rossetti imposed the stiff prison term and also ordered Kasza, 34, to make $454,603 in restitution to her victims, criticizing her for inflicting financial and emotional problems on them, many of whom are senior citizens.

Free since her April 26 guilty plea to felony scheme to defraud and grand larceny charges, Kasza cried as Erie County sheriff's deputies took her from the courtroom.

Kasza admitted that after offering competitive prices for trips to major travel spots and demanding full payment in cash up front, she failed to obtain reservations or plane tickets for many of her customers between August 1997 and last September.

She also admitted using some client credit cards to charge trips and flights for other clients.

Thomas J. Eoannou, her attorney, told the judge Friday she was "ill-equipped to run her own business" because of long-standing mental problems and a dysfunctional family life.

Dennis Rosen, the assistant state attorney general who headed the probe, said a civil judgment will be filed against her.

"At the present time the prospects for recovery are not good," Rosen said.

Rosen said a Grand Island businessman who Eoannou suggested was masterminding the fraud was interrogated by his office and cleared of criminal complicity.

About 50 of Kasza's victims attended the sentencing, but none spoke during the proceeding. Several, however, did complain to TV reporters afterwards.

Rosen noted that, thanks to the efforts of State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, many clients have received discount plane trip vouchers from Continental Airlines for trips anywhere in the United States.

Though Continental was not involved in Kasza's corrupt business dealings, after Spitzer told company officials she often falsely claimed she would book flights on Continental, the airline voluntarily agreed to offer her victims some compensation, Rosen said.

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