(May 21) OXNARD, Calif. — At least for the moment, the California Department of Food and Agriculture has turned away an Oxnard couple who attempted to jump-start their failed strawberry business in the face of an ongoing bankruptcy case and tens of millions of dollars in claims by hundreds of investors and vendors.

Dennis and Brenda Willingham face more than $35 million in claims by more than 600 investors and vendors in what has been alleged as a Ponzi-like scheme, according to documents filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Santa Barbara.

The Willinghams applied for a license renewal after the state revoked Dennis Willingham’s marketing license for his Oxnard fresh produce distributorship, Sunshine Fresh Produce. The license was pulled after the Willinghams had declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy in November.

“People were sort of outraged, saying, ‘We are only partially through this process, and he’s applying for another license,’” said Brian Condon, a Los Angeles attorney who is representing several plaintiffs in suits against the Willinghams.

Jim Valladares, the agriculture department’s supervising special investigator, said the application for renewal was turned down.

“If the party has filed bankruptcy and applies for a license, it requires a minimum bond of $10,000 or 20%, Valladares said. “The bond wasn’t provided, so it was denied.”

Valladares said he could not comment any further “because it’s an ongoing investigation.”

Investors are accusing the Willinghams of having solicited cash from them in 1999 and 2000 based on a promise of quick returns on their investment in Sunshine Fresh.

At the latest in a series of creditor hearings in the bankruptcy case May 13, trustee David Farmer voiced concern about the Willinghams’ “lack of documentation and cash,” Condon said.

“The trustee wants an accounting of who’s owed what because he can’t make any of that out,” Condon said. “He’s having a hard time understanding.”

Another hearing is scheduled for June 24.