Bondi urged to act against online travel companies

Jessica M. Karmasek Jun. 13, 2011, 11:59am


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Legal Newsline) - Florida Rep. Rick Kriseman is urging state Attorney General Pam Bondi to crack down on online travel companies, forcing them to pay back millions in state taxes.

Kriseman, a Democrat from St. Petersburg, sent a letter in May to Bondi, asking her to prosecute companies like Expedia and Orbitz, according to the Miami Herald. In the letter, Kriseman pointed to documents from the online travel companies showing that they have worked to avoid paying the taxes for years.

According to the Herald, the documents were released by a Georgia appeals court in January. They show that lawyers and accountants for the online travel companies believed they could be required to pay hotel taxes in Florida and that Expedia, for one, was keeping money on hand to pay any uncollected taxes it might owe.

Kriseman told the Herald the documents are "evidence enough" that the attorney general should prosecute the case and collect more than $400 million in unpaid state taxes.

"If you or I failed to pay taxes, we'd be prosecuted for it. There seems to be a pattern here from both the Attorney General's Office -- and the Governor's Office -- that they are willing to let big business off the hook," he told the newspaper.

In 2009, former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum sued Expedia and Orbitz for unfair trade practices. However, Bondi had held off on the lawsuit to see if state lawmakers would exempt the companies from paying the taxes, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office explained to the Herald.

This isn't the first time -- or state in which -- the online travel companies have been targeted for unpaid taxes.

Texas cities, in a lawsuit filed in May 2006, claimed the companies underpaid transient occupancy taxes by paying taxes only on wholesale room rates rather than the actual retail rates charged to customers who book their hotels online.

The online wholesalers purchase rooms at discounted rates and then make a profit by reselling the rooms to consumers at a higher retail rate. For example, if a company like Expedia pays $70 for a hotel room but later resells it for $100 plus taxes, then the company will only remit taxes for the lesser amount.

The online companies claimed they only connected consumers with good deals on rooms, the same way offline travel agents or tour operators do. Fees from traditional travel agents, tour operators and other middlemen have never been taxed.

On Oct. 30, 2009, a federal jury in the Western District of Texas found that the online companies should have been collecting more hotel occupancy taxes for payment to Texas cities. The jury awarded $20 million to more than 170 municipalities in the state.

However, the jury did not find convincing evidence that the booking services were collecting additional taxes and keeping the money for themselves, so they awarded no punitive damages.

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