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More CIAA surcharge complaints against Ritz-Carlton surface

CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams
CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams dfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The North Carolina Attorney General’s Office has started receiving more customer complaints about the controversial charge the Ritz-Carlton tacked onto customer bills last month during the annual Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association’s basketball tournament.

The Consumer Protection Division, a branch of the Attorney General’s Office that enforces state law against unfair and deceptive trade practices, launched an investigation of the upcharge earlier this week, though it hadn’t received a response from the Ritz as of Thursday.

Noelle Talley, the agency’s public information officer, said Thursday that three written complaints have been filed, and there have been “at least a couple” of phone calls.

One of those who filed written complaints was Valerie Paden, a Charlotte resident who works in Wells Fargo’s commercial mortgage real estate division. She said she frequents the Ritz in uptown Charlotte with clients but was surprised when her bill for a barbecue chicken flatbread and ginger ale cost her $23 on Feb. 28.

When Paden asked about the total, the waitress directed her to a sign at the bar notifying customers of the 15 percent surcharge.

“I’m not looking for money back, but I’m thinking that it’s just wrong,” Paden told the Observer. “For the event that comes to Charlotte, you just want to upcharge everything just to make money?”

The surcharge during an event hosted by the CIAA, the oldest African-American athletic conference in the nation, came to public attention after a patron complained to Observer news partner WBTV after noticing the line on her bill.

Jacqie McWilliams, the CIAA’s commissioner, said Thursday that when the organization hears more from the attorney general, it will schedule a meeting, “hopefully in person,” with officials from the Ritz in the next few weeks.

McWilliams said following up with local businesses after the tournament is standard, but because of the surcharge controversy, meeting with the Ritz is “very time sensitive.”

As part of its investigation, the state Attorney General’s Office is asking customers to submit their complaints online at ncdoj.gov or to call 877-5-NO-SCAM. Attorney General Roy Cooper wasn’t available for comment Thursday.

Another patron’s written response indicated that he believes the Ritz took advantage of its popularity and location during the CIAA tournament to “‘gorge’ the CIAA attendees,” according to the complaint provided to the Observer.

“This is very unfortunate, disrespectful, unprofessional and speaks to the lack of integrity of the management staff from the very top,” the response read.

The Ritz-Carlton has issued a statement apologizing to customers for any “misunderstanding” created by the charge. But spokeswoman Heidi Nowak this week told the Observer she couldn’t answer any additional questions about whether the hotel has imposed such surcharges for other large events, such as the Belk Bowl, or whether the hotel would offer refunds.

“The service charge was not intended to single out any particular group or organization, and we deeply regret any misunderstanding this may have caused,” Nowak wrote.

Both McWilliams and Will Webb, the executive director of the Charlotte Sports Foundation, said separately that a tournament-specific upcharge isn’t something they’ve seen before in Charlotte during big events. Webb’s organization is considering a bid for the college football national championship game in 2018, 2019 or 2020.

“I wish (the Ritz) hadn’t done it,” Webb said. “We do bring some events here with football, and if it becomes a pattern, it would certainly become something we would need to talk with them about and need to see what we could do to remedy it so it doesn’t have a negative impact on Charlotte.”

The CIAA agreed last year to keep its annual tournament in Charlotte for six more years as well as move its headquarters to Charlotte from Hampton, Va. In return, the CRVA increased its annual payment to the athletic association from $1 million to $1.4 million.

Peralta: 704-358-5079;

Twitter: @katieperalta

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