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The Watchdog: Hundreds of high school band members ripped off for thousands by a travel company

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Dave Lieber, The Dallas Morning News

Hell hath no fury like a high school band mom scorned — or a band dad or teen band member, too.

Band families are highly protective and form a tight community. Their kids are hard workers. To a band family, the first half of a football game is just warm-up for the real show.

Now 200 families across the U.S. are scorned and irate. They were ripped off by a Georgia-based travel company that promised exclusive band trips to Europe. One-fourth of the victims are from North Texas.

Harmony International's husband-and-wife owners took families' money while they were meeting with bankruptcy lawyers. Parents say they've seen no evidence owners Bradley R. Matheson and his wife, Margaret L. Matheson, even bought airfare or hotel tickets as they claimed.

The company filed Chapter 7 bankruptcy and lists that it owes more than a million dollars.

Intimidation tactics

The Watchdog counted in court records 56 North Texas families hurt by this business failure. I wrote a letter to each family asking for information. Only a dozen families replied.

Turns out a lawyer for the Mathesons also sent each family, already hurt by losing thousands in trip payments, a letter — a threatening one.

The form letter accuses the families of harassing and intimidating the Mathesons for refunds. Such activity violates federal law, the letter warns. "Sanctions and other penalties" could come through "electronic posting, commenting and communication."

This is outrageous treatment of hurt victims. But I'm guessing it worked, because response to my inquiry letters was so low. (Note to families: Do not be intimidated by bullying lawyers.)

I asked the Mathesons' lawyer, Erika K. Orcutt, why the letter was sent.

"Unfortunately," she replied in an email, "a few individuals sought to air their frustrations with the company and the bankruptcy filing inappropriately. ... Despite having been warned individually, those individuals persisted and encouraged others to do the same, which is what necessitated the cease-and-desist letter being sent to all potential individual creditors."

So people lose their money, and they're not allowed to complain?

The Mathesons, who listed in documents a residential address at a boat dock in Key West, Florida, did not respond to The Watchdog's request for comment.

Family not intimidated

Meet one family not intimidated by the cease-and-desist letter.

Beau Ballard, 17, is a senior at Aledo High School and plays bass trombone in the band. He and his mother's willingness to speak out might be a family trait. Beau is the only grandson of retired sports columnist and radio broadcaster Randy Galloway.

Randy, his daughter Gina Galloway Wood tells me, is "ticked" about this.

Beau tells me he has never been ripped off before.

The family lost $2,800, and Beau didn't get to play at the International Festival of Winds and Percussion as part of a trip to Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic.

The company canceled the trip, saying organizers were fearful of terrorism.

"It was a hard realization," Beau says. "It's just sheer disappointment. ... They seemed so nice and positive about everything. It turns out it was all a money grab."

Beau and other North Texans were recruited on the trips by two Texas Christian University's band program leaders: director of bands Bobby Francis and percussion professor Brian West.

The pair released a joint statement to The Watchdog, saying they are disappointed and saddened about the failure of a company for which they served five years as paid artistic directors. They said they are "hopeful for a resolution in the best interests of those who registered in good faith for these programs."

Terrorism excuse

Company founder and president Brad Matheson called his business "faith-based" on his now-defunct website. "I'm and adventurer," he explains on his blog's home page, with an obvious typo.

His company slogan was "Impacting lives through extraordinary experiences."

For the 200 victims, he kept his promise — but not as intended.

His lawyer, Orcutt, says families may receive refunds through the company's insurance policy.

"We regret there were some trips that had to be cancelled for reasons outside of our control," she says.

Parents say they don't believe the terrorism excuse for cancellation. But Matheson pushed it hard. In his email announcement about the cancellation, he wrote, "We simply cannot put a price tag on the lives of each of our participants and staff."

In an email to a complaining parent, he wrote, "Having a child's blood on our hands as an organization is not something we could have endured."

Scorned band families have doubts. The few that weren't intimidated and who responded to me have two questions:

Will they get their money back?

And with $523 in the Mathesons' bank account, according to court records, where did $1 million go?

Staff writer Marina Trahan Martinez contributed to this report.

ABOUT THIS COLUMN

The Watchdog Desk works for you to shine light on questionable practices in business and government. We welcome your story ideas and tips.

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