On the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, hundreds of Denverites gathered at a luncheon honoring community leaders who have held true to King's principles. The banquet was sponsored by Colorado's MLK Commission, which is headed by Denver First Lady Wilma Webb, wife of one of the most prominent black mayors in the country; it was held at the Adam's Mark Hotel, whose corporate ownership is headed by Fred Kummer.
He has a great deal to overcome.
On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Carol Jackson upheld a $5 million racial-discrimination judgment against Kummer's company, the HBE Corporation, and its Adam's Mark Hotel in St. Louis. The judge found Kummer himself guilty of arrogance, if not outright racism.
Justice is not always color-blind.
The hefty fine initially had been levied by a jury convinced that Adam's Mark had fired one employee, Dewey Helms, because he was black, and then fired a white employee, Bruce Ey, because Ey suggested Helms's dismissal might have been racially motivated. Both of the men had worked in the hotel's personnel department; after they were fired, neither was able to get a job at close to the salary--or responsibility--that he'd enjoyed at Adam's Mark. Based on evidence of ongoing racial discrimination at the hotel, the jurors awarded the plaintiffs not just actual damages, but punitive damages. Kummer, who denied that his company had race-relations problems, appealed the judgment.
But in her ruling, Judge Jackson not only upheld the $5 million verdict, she also ordered that Kummer's company contract with a "neutral third party" to monitor and investigate HBE's compliance with anti-discrimination measures for the next three years, giving this third party full access to the company's personnel files. For Kummer, who clearly likes to be in control, that's the humiliating equivalent of having to pay for his own babysitter.
Such drastic measures were necessary, the judge determined, because HBE had taken no steps to banish racial hostility at the hotel. "Indeed," she wrote, "while the defendant's chief executive, Kummer, acknowledged the presence of racial discrimination in the hiring practices of some white hotel managers, he took no steps to eliminate it because `you can't beat somebody over the head' to effect compliance with the law."
At one point Kummer had denied being involved in the hotel's day-to-day management. But the judge refuted this: "The undisputed evidence is that Kummer is intimately involved in all aspects of the hotel's operations. He is particularly involved in the personnel function, and he makes all hiring and firing decisions with respect to the salaried work force. Although he professed an interest in hiring more minorities in management positions, Kummer expressed his belief that the hotel's hiring standards were too high for most black applicants to meet. When the decision to fire Helms was challenged as racially discriminatory, Kummer gave it only momentary consideration. After all, he was the one who made the decision and, therefore, it could not have been discriminatory. Whether this reflects simply a lack of introspection or, at worst, sheer arrogance, the court finds such evidence troubling."
And the court doesn't know the half of it. One-fifth, maybe. Because while HBE must now shell out $5 million to the two plaintiffs in St. Louis, Denver stands ready to hand over $25 million in Denver Urban Renewal Authority subsidies for the expansion of the Adam's Mark Hotel in this city.
Denver's generosity doesn't end with the DURA subsidy. The city already has sacrificed Zeckendorf Plaza and its I.M. Pei-designed hyperbolic paraboloid to HBE's $130 million renovation project. And now it's about to toss city property, including the public's right-of-way, into the bargain.
On the same day Jackson's decision came down, the Denver City Attorney's office was polishing the language of the permit Denver plans to grant HBE for its hotel's "encroachment" on Court Place. Encroachment is the right word; the permit would allow HBE to stash its columns, awnings, marquees, canopies, even an elevator, on public land. (The elevator would come right through the sidewalk, because HBE says there's no room for it in the inn.) According to a February 1 memo to the city attorney from City Engineer John Stamm, his office had checked with numerous Denver departments regarding HBE's request for such a permit, "all of whom have returned our questionnaires indicating their agreement." As a result, Stamm said, "it has been determined that there is no objection to granting the subject permit."
But it's not that black and white.
Several weeks earlier, the Denver director of transportation told Stamm's office that he objected to any such permit being issued. "The City Traffic Engineer declines to approve the revocable permit application due to its precedent-setting nature and the fact that alternate design schemes are available which are less obtrusive and in better keeping with a downtown environment," read the memo attached to his "no" vote. For example, placing columns adjacent to a moving traffic lane "poses an obvious hazard." As for the elevators slated to come up through the sidewalk, "the applicant has not clearly demonstrated that the elevators cannot be contained on site." For that matter, HBE had argued that monthly parkers would need outside access to those elevators--but by the company's own admission, during peak occupancy periods there won't be enough space in the garage for hotel guests, much less monthly parkers.
Denver Department of Public Works Manager Bruce Baumgartner acknowledges that there were indeed objections to the permit, but says "on balance" the proposal is a good one. "Denver sets precedents all the time," he adds.
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And some are just as ludicrous as this one. City council must still approve the HBE permit, but council approved the DURA subsidy well aware of Kummer's discrimination suit. The order that came down from the federal judge may be harder to ignore, however. On Monday, Mayor Wellington Webb announced he'd asked to meet with Kummer this week. "This city will not tolerate discrimination of any form," Webb said. "If HBE is going to operate in Denver, the City must have a commitment that their hiring and firing practices will not reflect their practices in St. Louis."
Webb should keep one particular practice in mind: At the St. Louis trial, one witness testified that Kummer made it a policy to hire only black doormen in order to "uphold the Old South image of the hotel."
So why has Denver held the door open for this man?