|By Melissa S. Monroe, San Antonio
Express-NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Sep. 22, 2007 - Two years ago, Ken Coulter, his wife and his two sons fled Lake Jackson, south of Houston, out of fear that Hurricane Rita might destroy their home.
His home survived, but his wallet suffered from the one night his family spent in San Antonio.
The St. Anthony hotel downtown charged Coulter $300 for one night when the typical rate at the historic downtown hotel at the time was about half of that.
He wasn't alone.
About 200 consumers overpaid at the hotel around the time of Hurricane Rita, said Texas Attorney General spokesman Paco Felici.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said Friday his office had reached a settlement over alleged price gouging of customers at the San Antonio hotel.
Under the agreement, Wyndham International Inc. and Wyndham Hotel Management Inc., on behalf of The St. Anthony, will pay $190,000 in consumer restitution and state costs for the alleged price gouging. In addition, Wyndham's room rate can't exceed its standard room rate by more than 10 percent during a declared disaster in the future, and the company also is barred from collecting hotel occupancy taxes from evacuees who are fleeing a disaster.
Wyndham spokeswoman Evy Apostolatos said Friday that Wyndham Hotel Management didn't own or manage the hotel at the time of the allegation, and it still doesn't own the hotel. It's a franchised property, she said.
When the company purchased the Wyndham brand name, it took on certain liabilities, including the St. Anthony case, another spokeswoman told the Associated Press.
"[The agreement] is not an admission of any guilt or liability on anyone's part," said Betsy O'Rourke, a spokeswoman for Wyndham Worldwide. "It resolves an outstanding liability that we inherited from the original owners of that property." The Blackstone Group, based in New York, owned the property at the time the alleged price gouging occurred.
"Hotels cannot take advantage of Texans during a disaster," Abbott said in a statement. "[Friday's] agreement ensures that Texans fleeing a disaster area will have access to standard room rates. We will remain vigilant and will enforce state price-gouging laws."
Coulter said The St. Anthony wasn't his first choice, but after calling a half-dozen hotels in Austin and San Antonio, they settled on The St. Anthony. Once they checked into the room, Coulter said he knew he'd overpaid.
"I'm thrilled," he said about the attorney general's actions. "Fortunately, we could afford to pay for it, but a lot of people couldn't; and in a time like that, it's not the time to take advantage of people, especially after what happened during Hurricane Katrina."
Soon after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the attorney general received several complaints from consumers about inflated hotel rates and sharply higher gasoline prices.
The Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act prohibits any business from taking advantage of a declared disaster by selling or leasing fuel, food, lodging, medicine or other necessity at an exorbitant rate.
Alberto Andrade, The St. Anthony's managing director, said he's been at the hotel for only 90 days and didn't want to comment without knowing the background on the issue.
"But I haven't experienced rates of $300 since arriving at The St. Anthony," Andrade said.
The St. Anthony isn't the only hotel the Attorney General's Office investigated. Earlier this month, it ordered the Homer Norton Motel in Rosenberg, southwest of Houston, to make consumer refunds and to pay state and attorney fees totaling $60,000.
And last fall, Quality Inn & Suites in Marshall had to pay $150,000 in restitution to about 100 consumers, $200,000 in attorneys' fees and $50,000 in civil penalties to the state. Choice Hotels International, the franchisor, also revoked Quality Inn & Suites' franchise to operate because of its conduct.
Scott K. Joslove, CEO of the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association, said he was surprised to find out about The St. Anthony because his organization investigates the price-gouging complaints, and reports guilty hotels to the Attorney General's Office for further action.
"Whenever we get news of a natural disaster, we send out an e-mail to our members indicating there may be evacuations and an influx of hotel guests," he said. "There's limitations on what you can charge guests, and we ask that our members give them favorable rates."
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