Business

Newton tour operator accused of gambling away customers’ money

What prompted Tom Harper Cruises to suddenly go out of business and abandon its customers is now the subject of an FBI investigation.

Tom Harper River Cruises

What prompted Tom Harper Cruises to suddenly go out of business and abandon its customers is now the subject of an FBI investigation.

Mark Binderman of Stoneham and his wife flew to Edinburgh last May, excited about their upcoming weeklong cruise through Scotland’s sheltered rivers and lochs on board the MV Lord of the Glens luxury yacht.

But the day before the trip began, their tour guide called together the passengers — mostly retirees — to make an announcement on behalf of the tour operator, Tom Harper Cruises of Newton. The local guide said the trip was canceled, offering no reason.

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“Emotions ranged from what I would call a quiet seething rage, where you think someone’s head is going to explode, to grim resignation,” said Binderman, a 68-year-old psychologist. “Our tour guide operator broke down in tears. He said he’s never seen anything like this happen before.”

The frustration has only grown for Binderman and the other couples on that trip, who each plunked down about $18,000 and are unlikely to ever see it again. Tom Harper Cruises has since disappeared from its Chapel Street offices and filed for bankruptcy protection to liquidate whatever assets it might still have; hundreds of customers and vendors are owed millions of dollars, according to court records.

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What prompted Tom Harper Cruises to suddenly go out of business and abandon its customers is now the subject of an FBI investigation, which centers on the tour operator’s chief executive, Bret A. Gordon, according to a Sept. 18 letter sent by the US Department of Justice to a Tom Harper customer. The US attorney’s office would not confirm or deny an investigation; the FBI did not respond to requests for comment.

Gordon denied wrongdoing in an interview. He blamed the bankruptcy on the delayed delivery of two chartered cruise boats, which forced him to cancel tours and refund customers.

But Stewart F. Grossman, the trustee appointed by bankruptcy court to recover assets for creditors, said in court records that Tom Harper Cruises failed for a far different reason: Gordon gambled and lost millions of dollars. Gordon fraudulently transferred more than $3 million from the business to himself between 2013 and 2015, according to a lawsuit Grossman filed against Gordon in US District Court in Boston.

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Hardly any of that money is left. Grossman’s investigation found that Gordon has just $25,000 in assets but owes $10 million. “There’s no excuse for what he did,” Grossman said.

Gordon did not respond to requests for comment on the gambling allegations. But this is not the first time Gordon has faced such claims. Unknown to most of his customers, Gordon blamed a gambling addiction in 1996 when he pleaded guilty in US District Court in Boston to three counts of interstate transportation of stolen property in connection with stealing $130,000 from an employer, according to court records.

Gordon, 43, moved from his Newton home after filing for bankruptcy last summer, former customers said. The Globe recently found him at an address in Waltham. He said most customers recouped their losses either through trip insurance or credit card refunds.

“I do feel bad for whoever lost money,” Gordon said. “I am hopeful the efforts of the bankruptcy trustee will help minimize the impact to individuals.”

Former customers said insurance they bought through Tom Harper Cruises and other companies did not cover an operator that went out of business. About 127 people have filed complaints against Tom Harper Cruises with the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, according to the office.

Some 400 customers and vendors filed claims with the bankruptcy court, but most are not considered priority claims by the court, meaning other debts will be paid first.

Israel Shaked, founder and principal of the Michel-Shaked Group, a Boston consulting firm, is not surprised by the collapse of Tom Harper Cruises. Shaked, also a Boston University finance professor for the past 37 years, said he, too, was duped by Gordon, a student in his finance class in the 1990s.

Shaked said he was so impressed with Gordon’s computer skills that he gave Gordon a full-time job registering participants for a $5,000 training program sponsored by the firm. Then Shaked began receiving complaints from people who said they had paid for a course but were not registered. Gordon eventually admitted in court to stealing 127 checks totaling $130,000.

Shaked said it was a devastating chapter for him. He had believed Gordon came from a poor family and told his own children that Gordon was a true American success story.

“I get so emotional,” Shaked said recently. “He came to my attention as an underdog. It turned out he stole from me. My kids laughed at me.”

Gordon said he stole to feed a gambling addiction that sometimes led him to spend more than $5,000 a night in Atlantic City or at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, according to court records. US District Court Judge Patti B. Saris sentenced him to a year and a day’s confinement in a halfway house in the Boston area as well as three years of probation.

Gordon said the incident occurred a long time ago and his critics simply want to make him look bad. Gordon, who opened the company in 2013, describes himself on his LinkedIn page as a “C-level” executive with management experience at several travel agencies.

“If you look at my career, my history, my reputation, it’s unassailable,” he said.

Gordon named the company as a reference to Tom Sawyer and his best friend Joe Harper in Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” marketing its trips as a chance to “relax and float downstream.”

Leslie E. Kossoff for The Boston Globe

Deb Luening.

Deb Luening, an accountant and auditor for Northrop Grumman Corp. in Washington, has researched Gordon ever since her mother, Jan, and aunt, Mary Cushman, lost $16,000 on a Tom Harper river cruise to Portugal. The trip’s cost was taken out of their accounts the very day Tom Harper shuttered: May 15, she said.

Jan Luening and Cushman, 84 and 87, respectively, booked a trip to Portugal using the company because it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Portugal on a gilded barge formerly used by Queen Elizabeth II on the Thames River.

They never made it.

Cushman, a retired educator from Connecticut, said she should have been more alarmed when the company asked her to pay $8,000 for her trip up front via a wire transfer. She did, enticed by the 5 percent discount offered.

Deb Luening said she learned that most customers were asked to pay upfront after sending queries to more than 50 Tom Harper customers, recording their responses in a spreadsheet.

“I want to see justice,” she said. “I think he took advantage of too many people, people like my mother.”

Frederick Tirrell, an 80-year-old retired educator in Barnstable, said he and his wife were left high and dry in Scotland.

He later received a letter from Gordon apologizing for the trip cancellation and assuring him that “Tom Harper is a solid business” that would offer a full refund or a credit toward future cruises. When he called Tom Harper offices upon his return, no one answered.

“They knew damn well they were going to be closing the office,” Tirrell said. “So what happened to the money?”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter@megwoolhouse.
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