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Judge denies group’s request to depose White Lodging official

Thursday, June 13, 2013 by Michael Kanin

State District Judge Rhonda Hurley Wednesday denied a request from the Workers Defense Project that would have forced a high level official from the company behind the construction of a new Marriott Hotel at Third Street and Congress Avenue to appear in Austin for a deposition.

 

Workers Defense, a workers-rights organization, sought the deposition to get evidence for potential further action against the firm – White Lodging Services Corporation – whom they accuse of violating the terms of a city ordinance that awarded it fee waivers in exchange for a promise to pay project construction workers a prevailing wage.

 

Hurley’s ruling came in a brief letter that included no discussion of the reasons behind her decision. Workers Defense Business Liaison Gregorio Casar was careful to point out that Hurley’s letter did not discuss any merits of a potential lawsuit.

 

“The judge did not weigh in on whether or not workers and taxpayers have been cheated in the White Lodging deal,” he told In Fact Daily via email. “They just decided White Lodging doesn’t have to fly in from Indiana to be deposed.”

 

As for the ruling, Casar remained defiant. “We took White Lodging before a judge because we believe that the community we represent – low-income people – have the right to advocate for themselves,” he wrote. “Now, with this decision, it’s back on the city to take our $3.8 million in taxes back from the developer who has broken the law. White Lodging’s expensive lawyers and lobbyists will not stop justice from being done.”

 

At issue is $3.8 million in construction fees that Austin City Council members agreed to waive in exchange for White Lodging’s agreement to pay construction workers prevailing wages. The company maintains that post-Council discussions with then-Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza produced a memo that said that White Lodging could use an average of project wages to achieve that goal – a move that saves the company hundreds of thousands of dollars.

 

Workers Defense argues that the commitment from White Lodging holds the firm to a deal that forces it to pay prevailing wage for individual jobs.

 

Costs associated with that calculation may be more than the amount in fees that the city agreed to waive. (See In Fact Daily, Feb. 6)

 

As part of its campaign, Workers Defense has asked the city to halt the White Lodging fee waivers. White Lodging has asked City Council members to rule on the issue at their earliest possible meeting.

 

However, In Fact Daily confirmed Wednesday evening through city spokesman Kyle Carvell that City Manager Marc Ott could – at any time – cut the fee waivers without Council approval. As of Wednesday evening, he had not done so.

 

On May 31, city Contract Management Director Rosie Truelove wrote a letter to White Lodging that contained a final warning. “Failure to comply…will result in my notification to Mayor and Council of White Lodging’s failure to comply with the City’s prevailing wage requirements associated with the (project),” Truelove writes. “As a result of this failure to comply, White Lodging would need to reimburse the city for all development fee waivers provided.”

 

A June 6 memo from Assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes to Mayor and Council followed Truelove’s letter. “In an effort to continue to work with White Lodging on prevailing wage compliance, White Lodging was provided with a final opportunity for compliance by certified letter,” Snipes wrote. “The outstanding documentation was due Tuesday, June 4. The response…was non-specific and was not what was requested.”  

 

A White Lodging spokesperson declined comment pending the outcome of the fee waiver issue.

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