UNDER HIS SKIN
Fred Kummer, the developer Denver just agreed to give $25 million to subsidize the Adam's Mark Hotel, lost a $5 million federal racial-discrimination suit in St. Louis ten months ago. But city officials in Denver--which has one of the most prominent black mayoral administrations in the country--knew about the St. Louis case and went forward with the subsidy anyway.
Kummer, whose company will not only design the expansion of the hotel but operate it as well, was found by a mostly white jury to have ordered the firing of a black employee from his hotel personnel office for racial reasons. The employee's white supervisor was fired when he refused to go along with the order.
Such behavior would usually spell doom for a businessman seeking money from the city. But local political heavyweights Susan Powers, executive director of the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, and Tom Strickland, a U.S. Senate candidate and partner at the local law firm Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber & Strickland, lent their considerable influence to the out-of-town developer, helping to paint a more charitable picture of him for the city council.
Amy Lingg, spokeswoman for Mayor Wellington Webb, confirms that the mayor knew about Kummer's racial troubles in St. Louis before the DURA subsidy was granted. Lingg says the mayor declines to comment on why he allowed the grant to go through despite the reputation of Kummer's company, HBE.
According to testimony from the trial, Kummer ordered the termination of Dewey Helms, an employee in the St. Louis Adam's Mark personnel office, "because he was black." A key witness testified that managers at the hotel told him that both Kummer and his vice president had said they were afraid that having two blacks in the employment office was attracting too many blacks to apply for work at the hotel, making the hotel bar "too dark" with black patrons and employees. Speaking from HBE's St. Louis corporate headquarters, the 65-year-old Kummer denies having race-relations problems and says that "lots of things said at the trial were untrue" and that he thinks HBE has a "very good record as a company."
Ever since last June, when DURA and the Denver City Council voted to grant the Adam's Mark developer the $25 million tax subsidy, all the hoopla has been over the fate of the historic May D&F paraboloid, which will be razed for the hotel's expansion on the 16th Street Mall. When a letter of intent was finalized for the subsidy just last week, the only recriminations heard were over design disputes. No one said a word about race.
But the silence wasn't from lack of knowledge. The verdict from the EEOC's two-week jury trial was six months old when the Denver City Council gathered June 19 to discuss the subsidy. Dennis Gallagher, who was a city councilman-elect and not yet eligible to vote, recalls that "everyone" knew about the EEOC suit. "I asked several of the councilpeople to bring up the issue and ask that none of the money from Denver" go toward payment of any of the judgments from the lawsuits in St. Louis, says Gallagher. But no one heeded his advice.
Instead, the council voted 8-0 (Mary DeGroot and Ted Hackworth left the meeting before the late-night vote) to approve the subsidy, which is made up of future general-tax income and a portion of the city's lodging tax.
Councilman Hiawatha Davis Jr. did ask Kummer directly whether or not he intended "to change his ways" in Denver. A source who was present at the meeting says that when Kummer replied, he addressed the opposite end of the table from where Davis--who is black--was sitting. "Hiawatha had to wave his hand and say, `Over here,'" the source says. "Kummer gave some kind of vague answer like `St. Louis had nothing to do with here.'" (Davis recalls that Kummer answered "something like he was committed to the principle of equal opportunity.")
"I had heard something about the problems in St. Louis, and I was appalled," Davis says. "A few days before the meeting I told DURA I wasn't going to support this because of what I had heard. And Susan Powers at DURA had someone at the NAACP in St. Louis call me, and he spent a good forty minutes on the phone with me saying what an ally [Kummer was] and how he helped to raise funds [for the NAACP]."
Davis can't remember the name of the person who called him, but it's unlikely that it was the president of St. Louis's local NAACP chapter, Charles Mischeaux. St. Louis newspapers have said Mischeaux was "unhappy" with the Adam's Mark hotel there because of the discrimination suit and that he contemplated boycotting events held in the hotel. (Mischeaux was unavailable for comment.)
Sources in St. Louis say that the call Davis received probably came from Gentry Trotter, whose mother, Ina Boon, was director of the regional NAACP office at the time. Trotter--president of Multimedia Inc., a public-relations firm headquartered in St. Louis--had been hired by Fred Kummer and HBE to be a spokesperson for the Adam's Mark after a black lawyers' association boycotted the hotel because of an incident involving management allegedly hassling one of its members. Trotter tells Westword that he "can't remember" if he's the one who called Davis. The regional NAACP office that Boon headed has been merged with another regional office in Detroit, where officials say they know nothing about the call. Boon is retired and could not be reached for comment.
Based on the mysterious call and Kummer's answer at the meeting, Davis says, he went along with the subsidy for Adam's Mark.
Mike Cerbo, the business agent for the Hotel and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union, Local #14, in Denver, says he "told everyone" about Kummer's past, "but Tom Strickland had greased the skids, and they blew it by a lame-duck city council." Cerbo says Strickland, who was HBE's lawyer, introduced Kummer at the city council meeting, saying he was a "good citizen." Five days before the city council vote--and eight days after the mayoral runoff, Strickland donated $500 to Webb's campaign. His wife, Beth Strickland, gave another $500 to the Webb campaign six days after the council vote. Strickland didn't return Westword's phone calls.
The EEOC suit against Kummer and HBE involved the firing of two employees at the St. Louis Adam's Mark: Dewey Helms and Bruce Ey. Both were dismissed from their posts in the hotel's personnel office because, according to Ey's attorney, Lisa Van Amburg, Kummer ordered the firing of Helms, a black man, and Ey, who is white, refused to go along with it. After a two-week trial, a jury of two blacks and five whites found for the plaintiffs, awarding Helms and Ey $4.91 million, $4.8 million of which was punitive damages. At least one juror said that she was disappointed they weren't able to give the plaintiffs more money and that she didn't think the $4.8 million was sufficient "punishment for Kummer," according to a report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Kummer, asked to comment on his "race-relations problems," replies, "I don't have any." Kummer owns and operates seven Adam's Marks Hotels nationwide, and his company builds everything from hospitals to retirement communities. At the trial, he denied ever having made or heard racist remarks at his hotel. He also denied that employment decisions were motivated by race. Kummer argues that he has a "very large company" and essentially cannot be held responsible for every decision and action made under him. Because HBE is appealing the verdict, Kummer says, he can't comment further.
But Van Amburg contends that "it was very clear" that Kummer himself was directing policy at the St. Louis Adam's Mark. And, she says, Kummer's attitude was evident in a number of ways. "There was a lot of testimony from white executives that race was a factor in terminations and a factor in placing people in `front-of-the-house' [visible] positions. With the exception of the doormen, blacks held only `back-of-the-house' positions."
Testimony at the trial included reports that Kummer told his managers he was concerned about how many black associations were being booked into the hotel "back to back" in July and August. Dean Richard Porter, a former director of sales for the St. Louis Adam's Mark, testified that "Mr. Kummer was concerned that with the overwhelming amount of black people that were in the hotel that it would drive away the business traveler, that they would feel outnumbered." One witness, a white woman, testified that Kummer made it a policy to hire only black doormen in order to "uphold the Old South image of the hotel."
And Van Amburg says the discrimination went further than employment. "The other dramatic fact," she says of the trial testimony, "was that management directed people who worked in the bars of the hotel to discourage black patrons by not playing certain types of music that management presumed black people liked and removing from the shelves liquor that management presumed black people liked [which, according to testimony, was Courvoisier, Crown Royal and Hennessy]."
Race was also an issue when Kummer served on the the board of curators for the University of Missouri's St. Louis campus five years ago. In January 1990 he voted against making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a holiday, actually storming out of a meeting after ending up on the losing side of the vote, according to local newspaper reports. Kummer admits that he left the meeting in a huff, but he says it was because he had a deal with another curator, Dr. Eva Frasier, "a black woman and a good friend of mine," to vote against making King's birthday a holiday and instead "take the money we would have saved [by not granting the holiday] and turn it into a scholarship for minorities." Kummer says his colleague didn't live up to her commitment with him because of "political correctness." And he adds, "I'd vote the same damn way today." (Frasier could not be reached for comment.)
Kummer apparently is unapologetic about the EEOC case as well. He has yet to pay the verdict, Van Amburg points out, and he's vigorously pursuing an appeal. "I wish that the black community would employ old-fashioned economic boycott to this guy," Van Amburg says. "There's only so much one jury can do."
But far from a boycott of the hotel, some people in Denver's black community seem eager to do business with the local Adam's Mark. In fact, on December 3, the Macedonia Baptist Church will host its second annual Community Awards Banquet at Kummer's hotel. The Reverend Paul Martin, senior pastor at the church, which is on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, says he knew "something about" Kummer's St. Louis problems but adds, "We had no reason to suspect what happened in St. Louis would happen here." The keynote speaker at the event will be none other than Johnnie Cochran.
Get the Weekly Newsletter