Commentary

Schools out thousands to tour operator

Updated: March 19, 2009, 6:28 PM ET
By Paula Lavigne | ESPN

Dale Brannan cruised his Savannah, Ga., island community in an Infiniti G35 and bragged to customers about living in a $1.2 million home framed by pillars and palm trees. He hinted at expanding his sports tours company, Transports Athletics, and signed e-mails as "Dr. Dale," proclaiming an educational pedigree in business management.

But in spring 2008, several college volleyball and basketball teams that had put down deposits with Transports for once-in-a-lifetime trips to Europe, South America or Asia got the bad news. Their trips were canceled. The company declared bankruptcy.

[+] EnlargeKelsey Chipman
Kansas State AthleticsKansas State middle blocker Kelsey Chipman and her teammates thought they were going to China in spring 2008, but the trip was canceled.

"I was all ready," said Kansas State junior middle blocker Kelsey Chipman, whose team was a few days from a trip to China when it heard. "We couldn't believe, you know, three days before we were going -- after all those years of planning -- that it wasn't going to happen."

Coaches and team officials scrambled to salvage what they could. But when they called airlines and hotels that had been listed on itineraries for months, they were surprised to find scant evidence that Transports had made reservations. Brannan had put an initial hold on some international flight tickets with Korean Airlines but had never actually paid for them. Hotels had no record of their upcoming stay.

"I wonder where all the money went," said Pat Wong, whose daughter Amy plays for New Mexico. The Wongs had paid Transports nearly $6,700 so they could go with their daughter to China. "Was this like a pyramid scheme or something?"

According to records obtained by ESPN's "Outside the Lines" during a six-month investigation, at least seven college teams, along with parents and boosters, lost a combined $544,000 in payments to Transports Athletics over two years. Records show the company and its owner, Brannan, scheduled seven trips for those schools -- trips that athletes never took because, according to the universities, Transport Athletics canceled them or never even booked them. University officials, athletes and their parents are upset and want to know what happened to the money. The athletes and parents say they're hurt, frustrated and out thousands of dollars after being led to believe trips were scheduled.

Attorneys at several colleges are weighing their options. At least two people affected -- a booster and a former business partner -- have complained to the Georgia Office of Consumer Affairs and the federal bankruptcy court in Georgia. It is unclear whether any jurisdiction is investigating. A U.S. Department of Justice official declined to comment.

Brannan has refused to say what he did with the money. In a short interview with "Outside the Lines," Brannan referred questions about Transports' bankruptcy to his attorney, who did not respond to requests for an interview.

"We've been running a great company for years," Brannan said. "There were some financial situations that came up that took us under. That's it. There was certainly no intention to do anything wrong. None, zero. And if people think there was, I'm sorry, there wasn't."

Meanwhile, Brannan is back in business. According to records, two weeks before he declared Transports bankrupt, Brannan filed papers with the Georgia Secretary of State to create Sports Tours and Tournament Specialists. The company Web site also is registered to Brannan, but Brannan says he's just a consultant.

Hearing that Brannan is back in action doesn't sit well with New Mexico volleyball coach Jeff Nelson, who also found out that Sports Tours and Tournament Specialists was using his team in its advertising. In fact, under its list of successful tours, the company Web site listed several colleges that had never planned trips with Transports or STATS, and it touted trips that Transports had canceled.

"He obviously knows what he's doing," Nelson said, "and now he's moved on and is in business again."

Financial indicators

On the surface, Transport's bankruptcy could have looked like a simple business failure. Behind the scenes, though, Brannan was a 62-year-old self-employed businessman deep in debt.

[+] EnlargeDale Brannan
Fuji Lozada/Davidson College Dale Brannan, second from left, in 2005 on a trip to China, where he went with Davidson College's lacrosse team.

The record trail starts in 1994 near Seattle, where Brannan and his wife, Judith, amassed about $60,000 in debt and filed for bankruptcy. They moved to New Hampshire, then to Georgia, buying two houses in The Landings, a premier gated country club community on Skidaway Island near Savannah with an award-winning golf course and tennis complex.

That's where Brannan met Richard McAllaster, who had retired from running an investment firm. McAllaster, an avid sports fan bored with retirement, invested $130,000 into Transports in 2002 in exchange for ownership shares he hoped would generate a decent return. He volunteered to manage the books.

It didn't take long for McAllaster to grow concerned.

"The problem that I had with Dale was that he never seemed to have any money to put into the business at any time," McAllaster said. When a loan came due that could have threatened to close the business down, McAllaster had to pay it off because Brannan lacked the money. "Every time I came to him for any capital or anything, he just didn't seem to have it, even though he was making money off the company."

Brannan paid himself a $100,000 salary, but the company never generated a profit, McAllaster said.

"He lived in an expensive house and lived in an expensive neighborhood and drove an expensive car, so his lifestyle required money," he said.

McAllaster complained about Brannan's salary and tried to limit his spending at one point, but Brannan -- who owned the company -- refused to cut back. McAllaster left after a year, fed up with the way Brannan was running the business. Investors and others who worked with the Brannans since then said not much changed. The company still struggled to pay its bills and its employees.

In 2001 and 2004, Brannan turned to the federal Small Business Administration for loans, pledging his larger house as collateral for at least one of them. The couple sold the smaller of their two houses in Savannah for $288,500 in 2005, according to county property records.

By November 2007, the Brannans personally owed almost $1 million and filed Chapter 13 bankruptcy. They had four mortgages on their house on the golf course totaling $800,000. They were paying $670 a month to lease the Infinity G35. Brannan swore to a judge that his average monthly salary was only $400. But people who saw and spoke with the Brannans last spring never would have guessed they were deterred by debt.

By the end of 2007, the couple had moved into a $300,000 four-bedroom house in Fayetteville, Ga., about 25 miles south of Atlanta. The property had a pool with a cabana that the Brannans used as an office. County property records don't list them as the owners, and it's unknown how much they might be paying in rent. They told at least one customer they were selling their house in Savannah because Brannan's wife had a new job in Atlanta.

"He gave off the air that everything was OK -- like he was on the verge of being a millionaire," said Tali Robich, a former college basketball player who interviewed for a job with Transports in May 2008.

Robich said Brannan told her the company had lost more than $1 million on an investment it made in a trip to see an NFL game in China. The game had been scheduled for August 2007, but the league called it off about four months before then.

Brannan wouldn't tell "Outside the Lines" exactly what happened, but he did say the company had a couple of "huge losses that just ate up all we had."

When Transports filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy in July 2008, the company was more than $650,000 in debt.

"I know everybody is going to hammer us. We understand that. We've been hammered relentlessly," Brannan said. "It has destroyed our lives. I'm sure it was a bad situation for a lot of people. They will recover. I don't know if we will."

Shattered hopes

Jeff Nelson
New Mexico AthleticsNew Mexico volleyball coach Jeff Nelson had just exchanged $8,000 for Chinese yuan when his cell phone rang. A Kansas State assistant coach told him Transports had gone out of business.

In spring 2007, coach Nelson thought taking on Chinese teams would be an opportunity to play against some of the best in the world and a chance for his volleyball players to bond. Parents, siblings, friends and boyfriends also signed up with Transports.

For Lobos fan Fred Rose, it would be his first trip overseas. A former coach who met Rose in the university bookstore five years ago lured him to his first game, and he was hooked. Since then, Rose, 60, has missed only seven home matches. He makes $30,000 a year working in the bookstore, but he had some money saved up and figured $3,200 was worth the trip. But three weeks before leaving, Rose didn't have an itinerary and couldn't get the Brannans to call him back.

"I even asked about trip insurance and always got the runaround," he said.

Robert and Cindy Suiter, whose daughter, Allie, plays for New Mexico, also pressed Brannan for an itinerary. They were going to use the trip to China to celebrate their 25th anniversary.

"[Dale] sent us a list of flights," Cindy Suiter said, "and we looked them up on the computer … and the flights made no sense."

Brannan also tried to talk the Suiters into paying their last deposit a month before it was due.

"He was so smooth, such a smooth talker," Suiter said, recalling that Brannan had promised to buy her and her husband a drink at a special lakeside restaurant in China for their anniversary. "He had this way about him of talking to you and making you think he was your best friend. He made you feel comfortable despite those things around the edges."

Transports had come highly recommended from other colleges that had traveled with the Brannans all over the world. But sentiments changed on May 22, 2008, just four days before the Kansas State and New Mexico volleyball teams were supposed to board their planes to China.

Nelson had just left the bank where he had exchanged $8,000 for Chinese yuan when his cell phone rang. It was an assistant coach at Kansas State telling him Transports had gone out of business and the trip was canceled.

"And I'm like, 'No, you're joking.' And then he told me about it, and I realized what he was saying was true," Nelson said. When he arrived at the gym, players saw his disappointment. Maybe a mix-up with their passports? Or someone's visa fell through?

The truth led to tears.

"It really was like squashing a dream, except you're doing it 20 times over between the staff and the players. It's like swallowing your heart," Nelson said. "They're young. The thing I kept saying was, 'You'll have other opportunities; you'll do other things.'"

At Kansas State, Diana Loomis, director of volleyball operations, stayed up late calling hotels in China listed on the itinerary to see what, if anything, she could salvage.

"There weren't any reservations," she said.

Calls to the airlines turned up tickets on Southwest Airlines to get them to Los Angeles and seats for about half of their group on Korean Airlines. Those reservations, which had been put on hold but never paid for, had been canceled that morning.

Coach Suzie Fritz tried several times to get Brannan on the phone, but all he would tell her was to talk to his attorney.

"He had to have known prior to three days that this trip was not going to happen," she said. "Why did he not contact us earlier? What happened to our money?"

New Mexico and Kansas State travelers had given Transports more than $300,000 combined, and they had nothing to show for it. Well, nothing except for 120 T-shirts promoting the New Mexico-to-China summer tour that Nelson is still trying to give away.

Over the next few weeks, word spread to other colleges that had trips planned with Transports. Altogether, seven teams lost a combined total of more than half a million dollars. Two never traveled; four were able to plan trips with other companies at additional expense to the university. In at least one case, players had to chip in, too.

Three days before the Penn State Erie women's basketball team was supposed to leave for Italy in May, coach Roz Fornari called Judith Brannan and was told that not only was their trip canceled but they were $11,000 short, Fornari said. With $62,000 of spaghetti dinners, free throw shootouts and T-shirt sales invested, Fornari pleaded. The Brannans worked out a deal. Fornari would wire them $11,000, and they promised -- in writing -- to repay her before the end of June.

Fornari and a volunteer assistant coach withdrew the money from their personal bank accounts. The college eventually reimbursed the coaches, but no one at the school has seen any reimbursement from the Brannans.

Fornari chose Transports because her team had a great time traveling with them to Italy in 2004. The company had come well recommended, and that eased the minds of many coaches and parents.

Some of the coaches and travelers said that, in a sense, they felt sorry for Brannan, wondering whether he was as much a victim as they were of some unforeseen, last-minute failure.

[+] EnlargeAllie Suiter
New Mexico AthleticsIf anyone asks New Mexico player Allie Suiter about her team's experience, she'll relate exactly what happened.

Any empathy dissolved when they found out what Brannan had done two weeks before he started canceling trips.

"As far as we were concerned, he had fallen off the face of the earth until we heard that he was trying to resurrect and start another company," New Mexico parent Cindy Suiter said. "He should not be allowed to do that."

On May 9, Brannan filed papers with the Georgia Secretary of State creating STATS -- Sports Tours and Tournament Specialists. Just like Transports, STATS specializes in taking college sports team on international trips.

At least one person who talked to Brannan in May said he described the new company as an expansion of Transports with a new name. Brannan denied any connection between the companies. He said no Transports deposits were transferred to STATS. Such a move could constitute bankruptcy fraud.

Brannan asked at least one school that had put down deposits with Transports to continue its trip with STATS. Eastern New Mexico women's basketball coach Linden Weese was six months and $9,000 into a contract with Transports when Brannan asked him to sign a new contract with STATS. The contracts are identical except for the company name at the top. Weese paid the rest of his deposits, $16,000, to STATS, and the team traveled to Puerto Rico in November.

Brannan asked the Minnesota State volleyball team to re-sign, as well, but assistant coach Lori Rittenhouse-Wollmuth said no.

"Basically, he sold [STATS] as, 'It's bigger and better, and we'll be able to do a lot more things in a more manageable way,'" Rittenhouse-Wollmuth said.

The school booked a trip with a different company to Argentina this May. Brannan never refunded the $13,000 Minnesota State had paid, nor did he claim the deposit on his bankruptcy filing.

Brannan said he's a consultant for STATS. He says STATS is owned by Joe Walker, who runs a separate company specializing in trips to Brazil. STATS' address had been the same as Brannan's home until a few months ago.

In papers filed with the state in July, Walker became an official representative of STATS. The nature of Brannan and Walker's relationship is unknown, but interviews with coaches and e-mails to prospective clients show them working together.

In early July, before Transports filed for bankruptcy, Brannan responded by e-mail to someone asking about a trip. Brannan wrote that STATS was a new company that had been formed with Walker's Club Vacations company in Brazil. In a conversation with "Outside the Lines" in January, Brannan denied any connection between STATS and Club Vacations.

When STATS went online last year, many pages looked as if they had been copied from the old Transports site, with references to Transports scattered throughout the text. Even though STATS wasn't created until 2008, it had a list of clients and trips dating back to 2000 -- colleges that had traveled with Transports.

The list also touted several trips that had in fact been canceled, as well as references to teams that had never planned a trip with Transports or STATS.

Allie Suiter, a junior middle blocker on the New Mexico team, said that if anyone called her about the planned trip to China, she would set the record straight.

"When my parents told me that [STATS] listed us as a successful trip, that blew my mind because obviously we never went to China," she said. "That's just terrible for him to do. It's a lie."

Those who did business with Brannan say they want to see him punished. They want to see him pay. But most of all, they want him stopped.

"When you're working with students it just seems that there should be a greater sense of responsibility. This is about a life experience, a learning experience, and I feel like we were robbed," Nelson said. "You shouldn't be able to go right back into business the next day, but it's the way our system is and there's nothing we can do about it."

Paula Lavigne is a reporter in the Enterprise Unit. Her works appears on "Outside the Lines."