U.S. ordered to pay firm's legal fees

Judge awards $188,495 to hospitality company in J-1 visa program case

March 25, 2004|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

A federal judge has ordered the State Department to pay $188,495 in legal fees incurred by a South Carolina hospitality firm in its successful battle to regain the right to bring in foreign students for its hotel- and resort-based programs under a cultural exchange program.

The award by U.S. District Judge Patrick M. Duffy on Tuesday follows his Nov. 27, 2002, decision that the State Department acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it revoked the American Hospitality Academy's authorization to participate in the J-1 visa program on June 14, 2002.

A State Department hearing board, acting in response to Duffy's 2002 ruling, reversed the revocation order last year and reinstated AHA's right to participate in the J-1 cultural exchange program.

"Considering the totality of the circumstances, the court has little difficulty concluding that the position taken by the government was not substantially justified," Duffy said in his order filed Tuesday in federal court in Charleston, S.C.

Attorneys for the State Department had argued in a brief that its actions were justified because AHA, based in Hilton Head, acknowledged violating some J-1 program rules.

"No decision maker, not the District Court, nor the two ... boards ever ruled that AHA was not in violation of the exchange visitor regulations," the brief stated.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lee E. Berlinsky said yesterday that he was reviewing Duffy's decision and could not comment on whether an appeal would be filed.

AHA, which operates in South Carolina and Florida, began bringing in foreign students in 1998. Before its program was shut down by the State Department, the company provided housing and a $300 a month stipend to foreign students who were assigned to hotels and resorts after paying a $1,000 application fee. The company collected fees ranging from $1,300 to $1,600 a month from the resorts for each worker assigned.

In an article two years ago, The Sun and the Orlando Sentinel described how students brought to the United States by AHA had been assigned to tasks at vacation properties that included scraping goose dung from boat docks.

Earlier this year, AHA sued Tribune Co., charging that those articles were false and defamatory. The case has been assigned to Duffy.

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