The Ritz learns expensive lesson

The Observer editorial board

A Ritz-Carlton patron’s bill shows the controversial charge.
A Ritz-Carlton patron’s bill shows the controversial charge. WBTV

The Great Ritz-Carlton Tip Debate is finally over, it appears.

The consumer protection unit for the N.C. Attorney General’s Office said Monday that the uptown Charlotte hotel had agreed to refund the controversial 15 percent “CIAA service charge” tacked onto patrons’ bills during the CIAA basketball tournament in February.

The hotel will also give $75,000 toward CIAA scholarships and will make a $5,000 payment to the N.C. Department of Justice to support consumer protection efforts.

The hotel characterized the $75,000 as a goodwill gesture, and said it looks forward to working with the CIAA in the future. The Ritz added that it looks forward “to hosting future events at the hotel” for the tournament.

So ends a controversy The Ritz could have squelched months ago. It seems the hotel is learning an expensive lesson in crisis management.

Is this a case of Attorney General Roy Cooper, the presumed Democratic nominee in the 2016 governor’s race, playing hardball to gain favor with black voters?

Sticking up for the nation’s oldest African-American athletic conference clearly doesn’t hurt him. But the CIAA has been pretty aggressive on its own behalf when it comes to copyright infringement. In 2013, it took party promoters, nightclubs and merchandisers to federal court, accusing them of using the CIAA’s trademarked name without permission.

In the Ritz-Carlton matter, CIAA Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams signed the settlement letter from the attorney general’s office, as did a lawyer for the hotel and one of Cooper’s prosecutors.

If the CIAA pushed for the hard line here, the Ritz-Carlton wasn’t the first group to face it. And given that some patrons mistakenly thought proceeds from the unpopular fee went to the CIAA, it would not have been unthinkable for the conference to turn to copyright law rather than Cooper’s office as a remedy.

We previously said the hotel should have quickly refunded the service fee to customers. We are glad, finally, to see that happen. It would have been nice if it hadn’t required pressure from Cooper’s office to get it done.

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