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Bill would require checks on hotel workers

| Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2004, 12:00 p.m.

Spurred by the slaying of a Mt. Lebanon native in Chicago eight years ago, Allegheny County officials are considering whether to require criminal background checks for hotel employees with access to guest rooms.

Such a law would require lodging establishments to send the results of the checks to county police, who would keep a database of every employee with access to room keys. It would give police a place to start investigating any crime committed in a hotel room, said the bill's author, County Councilman Vince Gastgeb.

Council's public safety committee will have a public hearing on the proposal tonight in Conference Room 1 of the County Courthouse, Downtown.

Opponents of the law say it restricts private business and would be too burdensome for smaller hotel operations.

"We're not against the principle of the law, but we are against government mandates on businesses," said Chris Weidenhammer, vice president of the Pennsylvania Tourism and Lodging Association. Besides, he said, more than half the hotels in Pennsylvania already check for employees' criminal backgrounds.

The association is opposing a similar proposal from state Rep. Tom Stevenson, who wants a statewide background check requirement. Gastgeb, R-Bethel Park, said his bill is intended as a companion to Stevenson's legislation.

"We're not telling them they have to not hire the person. It's up to them at that point," said Stevenson, R-Mt. Lebanon. But if the background check uncovers something and the hotel hires the person anyway, the hotel's owners would be liable for negligence if something happened, he said.

Even without the requirement, a Chicago-area Hampton Inn had to pay Sol and Lin Toder, of Mt. Lebanon, about $4.6 million after a hotel worker murdered their daughter, Nan, who was staying at the hotel while on a business trip. Christopher Richee, who is serving a life sentence for the Dec. 13, 1996, murder, had prior burglary convictions, Sol Toder said.

"He's in jail for life, but that doesn't help us," he said. If the county and state enact these laws, it will spur similar action in other states, he said.

The Toder family's story is the reason John Graf, owner of the Priory Hotel on the North Side, started running background checks on employees. Graf still thinks it should be left up to business owners because of the costs of the background checks -- which range from $10 to $100 each. It also takes as long as 45 days to get the reports back, he said.

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