|By Gary Fineout, The Miami Herald|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jun. 2, 2004 - TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Attorney General Charlie Crist on Tuesday charged that a Perry motel owner routinely discriminated against black customers, forcing them to stay in run-down rooms and trying to prevent them from using the motel pool.
Using a new law passed by legislators a year ago, Crist sued in Tallahassee, asking for at least $85,000 in damages for civil rights violations and unfair and deceptive trade practices.
Raj Patel, owner of the Southern Inn in Perry, has 20 days to respond. In past interviews, he has denied any wrongdoing.
The allegations cover a four-year period. Among them: Patel would get upset when blacks would swim in the motel pool, and on one occasion poured chemicals into the pool even as two black children -- a 3- and 5-year-old -- were still in the water.
Patel was also accused of steering black customers into inferior rooms, while placing white customers in better ones near the offices of the motel, which sits on the main highway of the town 50 miles from Tallahassee.
"All of it is unconscionable and pretty hard to believe," Crist said. "The notion that this would go on in this day and age is shocking, but we have 13 witnesses telling us what happened." This is the second time in the last three years that Perry has been stung by accusations of racism. In 2001, a black legislator from Maryland said he was denied service in the front of a Perry bar.
The motel on Tuesday directed phone calls to Patel's Jacksonville attorney, but she did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
When Crist's office began its investigation last fall, Patel, a native of India, said he had done nothing wrong.
"I am brown-skinned, so how could I be against brown-skinned people?" Patel told The Herald last year. "I don't care if you're black, brown, white or Asian. If you have money, you are welcome here. I am a businessman."
The investigation by Crist's office was triggered by complaints that Patel told a family of blacks last July that "coloreds are not allowed in the pool." One of those who complained was Dwayne Parker of West Palm Beach, who has been arrested on charges of spouse abuse, cocaine trafficking, aggravated battery, shoplifting and improperly displaying a weapon, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records.
But Crist said the investigation uncovered other routine practices of discrimination. Crist's investigators say that black customers were "systematically assigned" to "black rooms" that were not kept in repair, have mismatched furnishings, worn and stained carpets and damaged fixtures.
White customers were placed in "white rooms" near where Patel and his family lived. Investigators stated Patel would grow angry at employees who placed blacks in these "white rooms." Investigators also said Patel routinely would try to discourage blacks from using the pool. After blacks used the pool, he would pour chemicals in it and referred to this as "sterilizing the pool."
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