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Human trafficking victim can’t collect from hotel, court rules

Updated: 2013-04-04T00:24:57Z

By MARK MORRIS

The Kansas City Star

A Kansas City hotel and its operators cannot be held responsible for unpaid wages to a worker who was defrauded by a human trafficker, an appeals court ruled this week.

In his lawsuit, Andro Tolentino, a native of the Philippines, said the owners and operators of the Westin Crown Center should pay wages that a contractor illegally took from him.

The Missouri Western District Appeals Court found, however, that Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. and Westin Hotel Management LP could not be held liable for a staffing contractor’s “unforeseeable criminal” deductions from Tolentino’s paychecks.

Federal prosecutors indicted the staffing contractor, Giant Labor Solutions, and 12 of its owners, operators and associates in 2009 on racketeering and human trafficking charges. At the time, prosecutors described the GLS conspiracy as the largest human trafficking ring ever uncovered by U.S. law enforcement.

Authorities said conspirators lured more than 1,000 foreign workers to Kansas City and then contracted for them to work at hotels, casinos and constructions sites in 14 states, sometimes for pennies a day.

A federal judge sentenced the leader of the conspiracy, Abrorkhodja Askarkhodjaev, to 12 years in prison.

According to federal court records, GLS obtained a temporary work visa for Tolentino in October 2007. By February 2008, he was cleaning rooms at the Westin.

Tolentino actually received a check from GLS for $0.00 for one pay period in April 2008 because the company had illegally deducted money for “visa fees,” Tuesday’s appeals ruling noted.

But the hotel could not be found liable, the appeals court said.

“There is no evidence that (the hotel or its operators) did anything that could have reasonably led Tolentino to believe that they consented to GLS’ illegal deduction of visa fees,” the court found.

Indeed, by then hotel officials knew GLS was under federal investigation but not why.

A federal court later awarded Tolentino restitution of $3,150 from the criminal defendants.

Elaine Drodge Koch, a lawyer representing the hotel interests, applauded the court’s decision, which upheld an earlier Jackson County ruling.

“As the court and law enforcement found previously, the hotel played no role in the unfortunate defrauding of Mr. Tolentino, and those responsible were criminally prosecuted,” Koch said.

To reach Mark Morris, call 816-234-4310 or send email to mmorris@kcstar.com.

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