A set of lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta allege that employees at four Atlanta area hotels knowingly allowed sex trafficking to occur on their property in exchange for money.

IN LATE AUGUST, a set of lawsuits were filed against four hotels in Atlanta that alleged the owners and employees at the properties knowingly allowed human trafficking to occur there. The suits arise as AAHOA and the American Hotel & Lodging Association continue efforts to educate members on preventing the crime.

The lawsuits allege large numbers of men visited the hotel rooms for short periods of time, one of the signs of trafficking that AAHOA and AHLA train their members to recognize. But, according to a report in the Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper, employees were paid to not only keep quiet about the crimes, but to participate as lookouts.

A quote from attorney Jonathan Tonge, who along with his colleague Pat McDonough filed the suits, demonstrates one of the concerns driving the associations and several large hotel companies to fight trafficking: negative public perception.

“These lawsuits demonstrate what we all know: hotels know about sex trafficking; hotels participate in sex trafficking; and hotels make money from sex trafficking,” Tonge said in a written statement. “The fact that for years it’s been illegal to do so has not changed the hotels’ behavior. When the choice comes down to leaving a room empty or renting that room to sex traffickers, the hotels in these lawsuits consistently chose to rent the room to sex traffickers.”

The lawsuits were filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta on behalf of four Jane Doe victims. The hotels named were a Red Roof Inn in Smyrna, Georgia; a former Suburban Extended Stay, now a Hometown Studios in Chamblee, Georgia; a La Quinta Inn in Alpharetta, Georgia; and an Extended Stay America in Atlanta. The home companies of each brand also were named in the suits.

The victims allege that, between 2010 and 2016, employees at the hotels allowed the sex trafficking to occur, with 10 to 20 men filing into the rooms being used each day. The employees were paid and alerted the sex traffickers when police were called or if other guests noticed the extra foot traffic, according to the suits.

Among the specifics, the lawsuits state that the Red Roof Inn had a sign on its front desk stating “No refunds after 15 minutes” for several years, a policy Tonge and McDonough said only existed to ensure payment by the visiting johns. At the La Quinta, the attorneys said in their statement, employees gave the traffickers rooms in the back of the property so their activity would be less visible, and at the ESA property an employee offered to sell one of the victims some lingerie after she told the employee what was happening.

Also, the attorneys said at one point one of the victims asked an employee at the Suburban for help. Instead, the employee informed the sex traffickers, who then beat the victim. And as all of this occurred, the lawsuits claim, the hotels’ corporate headquarters knew about the situation and did nothing.

“Traffickers target and groom our most vulnerable young people and then they rely on complicit hotels to provide a cheap and secretive location to sell them like chattel over and over and over.” McDonough said. “For the ones that survive, the lasting effects are heartbreaking, complex and long term.”

Only one of the hotel brands, Red Roof, issued a statement to the AJC in response to the lawsuits.

“Red Roof condemns, and has zero tolerance for, human trafficking and child exploitation,” the company said in an emailed statement. “Red Roof expects its franchisees to follow the policy and as part of our franchise agreement, comply with the law.”

A Red Roof Inn in Smyrna, Georgia, named in a federal human trafficking lawsuit allegedly had this sign on its front desk stating “No refunds after 15 minutes” for several years. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said this policy only existed to ensure payment by visiting johns.

AAHOA Interim President and CEO Rachel Humphrey also issued a statement on the lawsuit, saying the hotels’ alleged actions are “a disgrace to the hospitality industry.”

“These hotels are not AAHOA members, and the trafficking that took place tarnishes the great work that thousands of hoteliers are doing to stop human trafficking across the country,” she said. “When it comes to combating trafficking, America’s hoteliers are part of the solution.”

Human trafficking has been a major issue for AHLA and AAHOA. In January, both organizations and some hotel companies observed National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, during which they reviewed their protocols for identifying and preventing human trafficking.

For AAHOA, part of that included launching a campaign to bring its Human Trafficking Awareness Training to its regional membership meetings throughout the year.

At the Georgia Regional Conference and Trade Show in early August, AAHOA was joined by Georgia’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. The association had joined CJCC’s Georgia Statewide Human Trafficking Task Force Work Group One earlier in the year.

Task force coordinator Erica Mortonson and Amy Hutsell, program director for CJCC’s Sexual Assault, Child Abuse and Human Trafficking Unit joined CJCC Executive Director Jay Neal at the event and participated in a training session provided by Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking.

In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds and U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst addressed attendees at the conference at the Holiday Inn Mercy Campus in Des Moines about the issue.

“Collaborating with our industry partners and across all levels of government, Iowa is leading the fight to combat human trafficking,” Ernst said. “I’m proud to join with the hotel industry and to be a part of their efforts to train every employee in trafficking prevention. Working together, we can end trafficking not only in Iowa, but across the country.”