Thursday, May 14, 2009

A class-action lawsuit was filed in federal court Wednesday on behalf of more than 15,000 students who paid thousands to attend Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration but reportedly were left out in the cold.

The lawsuit filed in Washington says Vienna, Va.-based Envision EMI promised middle school, high school and college students across the country special access to the inauguration, parade and a black-tie inaugural ball Jan. 20.

The lawsuit says that once the students got to Washington, they had no tickets for the inauguration or parade, and the balls they attended were not official events connected to the inauguration.

Envision, a for-profit company that reportedly brought in $40 million from the inaugural sales, has said it would refund students $1 million. But the lawsuit says that would only reimburse each attendee about $65. The students were charged $2,380 to $2,620 and also had to pay for travel to Washington, formal wear for the ball and in some cases extra meals not included in the base cost.

“These kids took odd jobs and raised funds from family, friends and strangers in order to participate in the defendants’ inaugural youth conference to eyewitness a truly historical event,” said Bernard DiMuro of DiMuro Ginsberg PC, which filed the lawsuit jointly with another law firm, Hausfeld LLP. “Instead, all they saw was the inside of a bus or were dropped off near the Washington Monument to fend for themselves.”

Students and parents have complained about the trip on blogs, in groups created on the Facebook social-networking site and in the media. They complain about students sitting on buses with no view of the inauguration and others watching from their hotels on TV, minors who were dropped off and made their own way to the Mall without adult supervision, and a college graduate from California complaining the black-tie gala was nothing more than a “glorified prom night.”

A message left for Envision’s spokeswoman seeking a response was not returned.

The lawsuit asks that each student get a full refund and reimbursement for travel costs, along with other financial penalties to be determined by the court, and that the company be prevented from such deceptive offers in the future. It does not ask for a specific dollar amount.

Solicitations sent from the Congressional Youth Leadership Council, which is run by Envision, suggested the trip was an exclusive opportunity for select students who had been invited. Copies of letters sent to students and parents attached as exhibits to the lawsuit encouraged them to sign up fast because space was “extremely limited.”

The chance to witness the historic event generated a huge response, even though the students signed up before knowing the outcome of the election. The lawsuit says that typically events held by Envision had fewer than 1,000 participants, and the company was not prepared to deal with the logistics for so many attendees.

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