WASHINGTON - The president of a South Carolina firm barred by the State Department from placing foreign students in hospitality industry jobs because they were given menial chores rather than management training accused a key witness against her yesterday of being unqualified.
Cindy Reiman, president of the American Hospitality Academy in Hilton Head, told a State Department administrative panel rehearing the case that the witness - hospitality industry consultant Yael Nagler - had acknowledged to her that she didn't know the regulations governing the J-1 cultural exchange program "that well."
In testimony before the three-member panel Tuesday, Nagler, hired by the State Department to conduct a survey of AHA job sites, said a South Carolina restaurant manager had called his trainees "slave labor."
But Reiman quoted Nagler as telling her, "I think you have a great program."
Nagler said that the conversation Reiman described "just didn't happen."
In a telephone interview after yesterday's hearing, Nagler said she had told Reiman she couldn't comment on a pending case. She said she did mention that some people she met with had praised the AHA program, but insisted that she offered no assessment of her own.
She also said she wasn't hired to examine the program regulations.
During her testimony, Nagler described visiting 20 South Carolina and central Florida sites where AHA had placed trainees and concluded that all had been put in unskilled positions.
In an article last year, The Sun and the Orlando Sentinel described how thousands of foreign students brought in by AHA had been working for less than minimum wage at jobs that included scraping goose dung from boat docks.
After a hearing last year, the State Department kicked AHA out of the J-1 visa program.
AHA subsequently filed suit in U.S. District Court in South Carolina, where a federal judge ordered the State Department to gather more evidence to support its case.
Yesterday, during the final day of testimony, Carol Epstein, a State Department attorney, reiterated to the panel that AHA's program was beyond repair and the only suitable action was expulsion from the J-1 program.
AHA's attorney, Laura Reiff, said State Department attorneys had failed to prove their case and had failed to present "a shred of evidence" to back AHA's expulsion.
Reiff said the State Department had not conducted a further investigation as required in an order from the South Carolina judge.
She said the survey conducted by Nagler, aimed at determining whether it was economically viable for AHA to comply with federal regulations, was insufficient.
And she derided Nagler, saying she had graduated from a hotel management program at Cornell University two years ago and "now she's become an industry expert."
Reiman also questioned why Nagler did not produce a written report.
Reiman and Reiff also sought to challenge the State Department's contention that AHA did not measure up to other participants in the cultural exchange program.
Esptein responded that the AHA program was really a work or staffing program with a few hours of classroom sessions added on each week. It was not a true training program as required under the J-1 program, she said.
During the hearing, the panel's chairwoman, Mary Ann Craven, announced that portions of a court transcript in which an AHA official admitted to multiple violations of exchange program rules would be entered into evidence.
Craven also asked Reiman whether she would be willing to work with State Department officials to bring her program into "full compliance."
"Certainly we'd be receptive to any feedback, as long as it's fair," Reiman said. "But if we were structured like the other programs, we couldn't do it."
A decision is expected within the next few months.