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Former Manager of the Restaurant at the Hilton Minneapolis Files Discrimination Lawsuit;
Alleges She Was Fired After Complaining about Hotel Executives' Wild Party

By David Hanners, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Nov. 29, 2008 - --A former manager of the restaurant at the swank Hilton Minneapolis was fired after she came upon members of the hotel's upper management having an orgy in a banquet room, the woman claims in a lawsuit.

Some of the executives were atop a table engaging in "sexual activity," the woman, Deborah Smith, claims in her suit filed in U.S. District Court.

Smith, 43, of Coon Rapids, was the night manager of Hilton's SkyWater restaurant until Dec. 19, 2007. She says that after she complained about the alleged orgy, "a campaign of harassment and retaliation ensued against her."

Smith could not be reached for comment Friday. Her attorney, Lori C. Peterson, of Minneapolis, did not return a call for comment.

The hotel's general manager, John Luke, was out of the state and not available, said Victor Salamone, the hotel's director of food and beverage and the manager on duty this weekend.

Katherine C. Bischoff, one of the attorneys defending the Hilton, said she wasn't authorized to comment on the case.

The president of the union that represents the Hilton's workers said she had no knowledge of the lawsuit and hadn't heard about the alleged orgy.

"Usually, I hear about this stuff. This, I don't know anything about," said Nancy Goldman, who heads Unite Here Local 17, which represents about 200 workers at the posh hotel in downtown Minneapolis.

<>Smith's lawsuit, originally filed in Hennepin County District Court, included two other plaintiffs, cocktail server April Bezdichek, 25, and bartender Harley Gayle, 41. Hilton moved to have the cases severed into three lawsuits, and a state judge granted the motion.

Citing jurisdictional issues, the company also sought to have the cases moved to federal court, and a judge agreed.

The three cases were filed in federal court Wednesday -- Smith's first and the others later in the day. Because Thursday and Friday were court holidays, the suits filed by Bezdichek and Gayle were not available for public viewing.

In her suit, Smith says she was the night manager of SkyWater and went to work at the Hilton on April 4, 2006.

As night manager, Smith "was praised for her job performance, received raises and was entrusted to train other employees," the suit contends.

That came to an end last Dec. 19, sometime after Smith claims she saw what the suit describes as an "orgy."

"Plaintiff Smith was fired after she opened the door to a banquet room at the Hilton. Inside this room, she discovered an orgy involving Hilton upper management," the suit says.

"Specifically, when Plaintiff Smith opened the door to the banquet room, she saw various Hilton executives inebriated and engaging in sexual acts," the suit claims. "In fact, she observed Hilton executives on top of a table engaging in sexual activity."

The suit doesn't say when the alleged incident took place. Smith contends that after she "walked away from the orgy," the hotel's beverage manager, James Vennewitz, "said she would be fired, and he would make sure of it."

"Unfortunately, I can't comment on that," Vennewitz said Friday. "You'd have to talk to the attorneys, I guess."

Smith says she complained to the hotel's personnel department but got no help. "Plaintiff Smith was set up for retaliatory termination and fired," the suit claims.

Smith is accusing the hotel of sex discrimination and sexual harassment. She says she was "subjected to unwelcome sexual conduct directed at her on the basis of her sex" and that the conduct was "hostile, severe, pervasive, abusive and intimidating."

She also claims she was retaliated against because she complained.

The suit doesn't state a dollar figure for what Smith is seeking, but it says she was damaged in excess of $50,000 and that she intends to seek punitive damages as well as a civil penalty to be paid to the state.

David Hanners can be reached at 612-338-6516.


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