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Hotel to pay millions in bias suit

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2000


WASHINGTON -- The Adam's Mark Hotel chain agreed Tuesday to adopt a racially unbiased guest policy and to pay $8-million in damages for discrimination suffered by African-Americans who visited the chain's Daytona Beach hotel during the 1999 Black College Reunion.

The four-year agreement, announced by Attorney General Janet Reno, satisfied lawsuits brought against the hotel chain by the Justice Department, the state of Florida and private attorneys representing the aggrieved hotel guests.

Reno said Adam's Mark was the first hotel chain to agree to such a comprehensive anti-discrimination policy.

HBE Corp., the Kansas City-based firm that operates the 21-hotel chain, sought a settlement of the suits after being targeted for a boycott by the NAACP. A number of national groups, including the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have canceled meetings scheduled to be held in the Adam's Mark chain.

"While Adam's Mark is committed to equality and has never intentionally done anything wrong, we apologize for any actions that may have made any of our guests feel uncomfortable or unwelcome," said Fred Kummer, company president and CEO.

Not only will some people be compensated from the settlement fund, but an additional $1.5-million was set aside to help fund the hotel management programs to four historical black colleges in Florida: Florida A&M University, Bethune-Cookman College, Edward Waters College and Florida Memorial College.

Although Adam's Mark did not admit any wrongdoing, the settlement offered vindication for black hotel visitors who claimed they were treated as second-class citizens by the hotel staff during last year's annual Daytona Beach gathering of more than 100,000 black college students.

Among other things, black guests said they were forced to pay a higher room rates; required to wear a special orange wristband; denied access to mini-bars, in-room telephone service, pay per view movies and valet parking; forced to pre-pay for restaurant privileges; and subjected to derogatory remarks from the staff.

Five named plaintiffs in the private suit, who were identified as Dante Gilliam, Jamie Morrison, Latoya Straughn, Napoleon Berrian and Mark Simmonds, immediately will receive $25,000 each from the settlement fund. Other people who can prove they were among the victims of the hotel's discriminatory actions that weekend will divide up $4.4-million.

About 1,200 people were guests in the hotel during the Black Reunion weekend last year, and an unknown number of visitors were turned away when they tried to visit the hotel guests.

In addition, about $1.75-million has been set aside to cover attorneys fees, according to John Relman of Washington, attorney for the plaintiffs. Relman's firm also played a key role in winning a similar 1994 settlement with Denny's restaurant chain.

Denny's paid $54-million to settle a series of racial discrimination complaints in California and Maryland after six black Secret Service agents were denied service. Denny's, which has 1,500 restaurants, also had every employee sign a non-discrimination pledge and watch training videos.

Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who assisted Reno in announcing the settlement, said the state got involved in the case because it feared the actions by Adam's Mark in Daytona would discourage African-Americans from visiting Florida.

The money allocated for the four historically black colleges will be used to develop scholarship, internships and cooperative education programs in hotel and hospitality management, according to Butterworth.

Under terms of the agreement, the 21-hotel chain agreed to hire an outside monitor, Protect Equality of Kansas City, to oversee compliance. Among other things, the firm will investigate complaints made by hotel guests, oversee nondiscriminatory training programs for hotel employees and establish a plan to market the hotels to African-Americans.

On occasion, the monitoring company will test the chain's compliance with the plan by sending white and black customers to the hotels, seeking identical services. Any significant difference in their treatment will be viewed as evidence the settlement is not being enforced.

This year's Black College Reunion is scheduled to be in Daytona, beginning March 30.

The event is being planned with the help of a $50,000 donation from the Adam's Mark hotels. Another $112,000 will be contributed to the event by Adam's Mark under terms of the settlement.

In Florida, Adam's Mark has hotels in Clearwater Beach, Jacksonville, Orlando and Daytona Beach.

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