2 newspapers sue to open hearing

Sun, Orlando Sentinel seek access to proceeding involving training firm

May 08, 2002|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Two newspapers filed suit yesterday to force the U.S. State Department to open a closed appeal hearing that will determine whether a for-profit firm can continue placing foreigners in low-level jobs in the hotel and tourism industry.

The suit, filed here in U.S. District Court by attorneys for The Sun and the Orlando Sentinel, would open to the public the appeal filed by the American Hospitality Academy, which operates intern programs in South Carolina and Florida. The AHA proceeding before a three-member panel of department officials began yesterday and is expected to take three days.

During a brief court hearing on the suit yesterday before U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle, attorneys for the State Department agreed to suspend the AHA proceeding while the judge considers the matter. She is expected to reach a decision today.

The papers reported last month that AHA has brought some 2,000 foreign students to the United State since 1997 and placed them in menial jobs paying the equivalent of $1.67 an hour at hotels and resort areas in Florida and South Carolina. The students, who paid fees of as much as $1,000 to AHA, were promised management training but ended up spending their time at such tasks as scraping goose dung off docks, working cash registers and washing dishes, the papers reported.

AHA is appealing the State Department's revocation of the company's status as a sponsor under its J-1 visa exchange program. After a lengthy investigation, the department concluded that the employment of students in "unskilled" jobs meant that "the academy's program does not meet the regulatory requirements of a bona fide exchange program."

Officials of the company contend that they are running a legitimate training program and that the State Department has unfairly targeted their operation. They say the revocation notice could put them out of business.

According to the suit filed by the newspapers, Paul Manning, a State Department attorney, declared that the revocation appeal proceeding was not subject to the open meeting law and that reporters would not be allowed to attend.

Attorneys for the papers said the revocation and the appeal hearing and process "are all matters of substantial public interest and concern."

The investigation that led to the revocation was triggered by a complaint filed by an intern from Thailand, Primvarag Luengarai, who said AHA officials tried to fire her last fall because she could not work after she fell in an off-hours accident and crushed her thumb.

The State Department later ordered AHA to reinstate the 24-year-old woman. The company contends she was dismissed for failing to attend training sessions.

The newspapers also reported on the case of Ning Srifar, another AHA intern from Thailand, whose duties included cleaning goose dung from a boat dock at a Florida resort. AHA officials said the two interns are atypical because most participants are pleased with the program.

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