Justice Dept. Weighs Lifting Antibias Order on Hotel Chain

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Justice Dept. Weighs Lifting Antibias Order on Hotel Chain

WASHINGTON, March 21 Justice Department officials said today that they were considering ending an order requiring a hotel chain to comply with an antidiscrimination settlement imposed after complaints that its hotel in Daytona Beach, Fla., discriminated against black guests by making them wear neon-orange wristbands and assigning them to lower quality rooms at higher prices.

The officials said that the offer was made by Ralph F. Boyd Jr., the head of the department's civil rights division, in a meeting on Oct. 29 with representatives of the HBE Corporation of St. Louis, which operates Adam's Mark Hotels and Resorts, a chain of 24 hotels, including the one in Daytona Beach.

The HBE Corporation is owned by Fred S. Kummer Jr., a longtime friend and political supporter of Attorney General John Ashcroft, a former senator and governor from Missouri. Barbara Comstock, a spokesman for the attorney general, said today that neither Mr. Ashcroft nor any of his immediate staff members had any involvement in the case.

John Relman, a lawyer for the civil rights plaintiffs, was sharply critical of the offer, saying that it was highly unusual to shorten the duration of a compliance order so early. The order began in 2000. He also said that Mr. Kummer had said to him that his association with Mr. Ashcroft could help free him from the order.

Mr. Kummer's spokesman, Randy Myers, said he would not comment.

Ms. Comstock said that Mr. Boyd alone had taken the initiative to revisit the case as part of his "open-door style of management."

The offer to consider lifting the restrictions and the connection between Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Kummer were first reported today in The Washington Post.

Ms. Comstock said that Mr. Boyd told company officials at the October meeting that he would not lift the order but would consider doing so at the end of 2002. The order, which is supposed to remain in place at least until 2004, calls for all the company's hotels to document that they treat guests equally, regardless of race, and requires management to pay for civil rights testers who pose as guests and report how they are treated. It also requires special training for employees.

Mr. Boyd said in a statement, "The decision at issue made by me in this case, which was to take no action but only to monitor the situation for compliance with a consent decree, was my decision and mine alone."

Mr. Relman, the civil rights lawyer who brought the lawsuit on behalf of five African-Americans who were attending a black college reunion weekend in Daytona Beach, said that the offer to rescind the consent decree sent the wrong message to businesses.

He said that the consent order in another case in which he was involved that concerned the Denny's restaurant chain, was treated very differently. Denny's, which had been accused of discriminating against black patrons, was put under a consent order in 1994 that was to last a minimum of five years and a maximum of seven. He said the order was rescinded in six and a half years, six months before the maximum "because their compliance was stellar." He added, "They did far more than was required."

Mr. Relman said that career lawyers at the civil rights division who were not part of the meeting between Mr. Boyd and the company's representatives have told him that the hotel chain was not performing well.

But Ms. Comstock said that Mr. Boyd had told her that the hotel chain seemed to be doing more than the order required.

Mr. Relman said that Mr. Kummer has never accepted that he has problems in his company. "He scoffed at the allegations all along and told me once that his guy won the election, and it could help him get out of the decree," Mr. Relman said.

He said that Mr. Kummer told him that he attended the wedding of a daughter of Mr. Ashcroft. When he was governor, Mr. Ashcroft appointed Mr. Kummer to the University of Missouri board of curators. Mr. Kummer, members of his family and HBE officials donated a total of $15,700 to Mr. Ashcroft's 1994 and 2000 Senate campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. HBE donated $10,000 in soft money in 1999 to Mr. Ashcroft's failed presidential bid.

The HBE officials are the only people to have met with Mr. Boyd about reducing the length of a consent order. Ms. Comstock said that they were the only people to have requested such a meeting.

-- Cherri (jessam5@home.com), March 28, 2002

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