A House Divided: Residents call for Graziano's dismissal and Housing Authority reform

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City had a rocky week.

The Gilmor Homes sex-extortion scandal took some new turns. The housing authority faced mounting criticism and calls for the dismissal of its Commissioner Paul T. Graziano after top officials in the agency were accused of ignoring pleas for help from plaintiffs in the Gilmor Homes sex-extortion lawsuit. On Thursday, the Housing Authority fired one of its maintenance employees—not one who had been accused of demanding sex for repair work but one who had been investigating residents' allegations on behalf of his union and who went on to become a vocal critic of managers who failed to act.

Meanwhile, lawyers added four new plaintiffs and one new defendant to the original civil suit that set forth the allegations of "widespread sexual abuse and harassment" perpetrated by maintenance men against women living at Gilmor. The lawsuit, filed in Federal District Court on Sept. 28 against the city, Commissioner Graziano, and several maintenance workers, alleges that female residents of the Gilmor Homes and other public housing developments were denied vital maintenance to their homes in order to coerce sexual favors from them. That brings to 11 the total number of plaintiffs, each of whom is seeking $10 million in damages.

Then, State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby's office announced last Wednesday that it was opening a criminal investigation into the allegations made in the suit. That same day, community organizers and residents of various Baltimore public-housing projects gathered outside Gilmor Homes to protest unsafe living conditions and call for Graziano's resignation.

They weren't the only ones up in arms. Student activists who marched through downtown last Monday, targeting city officials for criticism as part of the protest movement that has grown up around the Freddie Gray case, added firing Graziano to their list of demands.

Despite the outcry, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake defended Graziano at a press conference, and told reporters she is "absolutely not" considering firing him.

Allegations grow

Last Friday, Perry Hopkins, an organizer with Communities United who first heard the Gilmor residents' allegations of sexual abuse and harassment while doing some community organizing this spring, said that in addition to the four new plaintiffs added earlier in the week, he has brought more complaints to the attention of attorneys. Hopkins said he could not specify the number of new accusations until attorneys had reviewed the women's allegations.

Hopkins said 30 women told him of allegations against maintenance workers but said that many have been reluctant to come forward for fear of reprisals.

Two of the maintenance employees don't work there anymore and Hopkins said, as a result, more women are becoming willing to tell their stories.

Officials with the maintenance workers' union said last week that the Housing Authority fired Charles Coleman and Michael Robertson on Friday, Oct. 9. There is no word on the status of a third worker named in last week's filing, Doug Hussy, who has been employed at Govans Manor.

Most of the allegations involve Coleman, a supervisor at Gilmor.

Hopkins said that, despite Coleman's termination, there is still fear among those he is alleged to have sexually abused. Some of the women have told him that others are threatening them.

Coleman could not be reached for comment.

Cary Hansel, one of the attorneys representing the women residents in the suit, said that in addition to intimidation by the perpetrators, "negligence" on the part of Housing Authority leadership has contributed to the atmosphere of intimidation. "In point of fact, those that did contact authorities did not get any help," Hansel said.

Graziano "is aware of the allegations of sexual abuse and finds them extremely disturbing," said Tania Baker, deputy director of communications for the Housing Authority, in an emailed response to City Paper. The Housing Authority would not comment on specific "confidential personnel matters" but said it "takes the safety and well-being of its residents very seriously" and "continues to actively conduct an internal investigation of the alleged sexual abuse."

Hansel said he and his co-counsel Annie Hirsch are investigating the role played by a top housing official. According an affidavit filed with the lawsuit, the Housing Authority's Deputy Commissioner Reginald Scriber, who reports directly to Graziano, actively discouraged a victim from pursuing her claims.

Scriber has been with the Housing Authority for 32 years, eight of them in his current position of deputy commissioner for community services. City Paper reached out to Scriber for comment and was told he would not be available until after Tuesday, after City Paper's press deadline. A housing spokesperson declined to comment beyond an emailed statement sent to the media.

The lawsuit's back story

Hopkins, who is from the Penn North area not far from Gilmor, said that residents' complaints of alleged extortion and sexual abuse began trickling out this summer when he and other Communities United organizers began holding a series of community meetings, looking into living conditions at Gilmor.

When asked what maintenance workers were doing to address the multitude of health and safety concerns residents had, he said some residents told him that service could only be obtained in exchange for sexual favors, and that many of those who did not give in to workers' demands had waited years for help while their apartments fell further into dangerous disrepair.

"I heard it once or twice in my first week. Into the second week, it started becoming consistent," Hopkins said.

The scope of the problem became clearer, Hopkins said, when he held a community meeting at which harassment and extortion by maintenance workers was the most talked-about subject. At that point, he began to track down and document individual allegations. "I was getting more and more intimate details, and it was horrific," Hopkins said. Many residents told Hopkins that because Coleman was the on-site supervisor and allegedly the most egregious offender, they were at a loss as to who to take their concerns to.

Hopkins and attorney Hansel both said that for residents of Gilmor, former home of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody in April, reporting the incident to police wasn't seen as an option.

"These are Freddie Gray's neighbors. They don't have a high degree of confidence the Baltimore City police are there to help them," Hansel said.

Roberto Alejandro, a writer for the Afro-American Newspaper who had been approached by Hopkins, first broke the story in July. Following the story's publication, Hopkins began referring Gilmor residents to attorney Hansel, leading on Sept. 28 to the filing of the lawsuit, in which each of the plaintiffs seeks $10 million in damages.

Hopkins says that at the time the Afro-American story came out, the Housing Authority had transferred Coleman out of Gilmor Homes, and that in his absence, the first seven plaintiffs found the courage to contact Hansel. However, within a matter of weeks, Coleman was back at Gilmor, sending residents who had been working with Hopkins into a panic, the plaintiff's lawsuit alleges.

"My phone was going nuts. It sent a lot of women back into hiding because they felt like they had no protection," Hopkins said.

The Gilmor women allege in the lawsuit that Coleman's reassignment to Gilmor was an attempt on the part of Graziano and Housing Authority leadership to punish the women there for publicly complaining, and dissuade them from moving forward with the suit.

Whistle-blower fired

Hopkins and other community activists allege that in the wake of last month's suit and the attendant media attention, Housing Authority leadership is now trying to silence criticism coming from within its own organization by firing an employee who investigated abuse allegations in his capacity as a union representative, and attempted to bring them to the attention of managers.

Lucky Crosby, a senior maintenance worker at the Housing Authority and a safety officer for the union, AFSCME Local 647, said he came home on Thursday to find a letter taped to his door, informing him that he had been terminated from the job he's held for the last 14 years. The letter stated that his firing was the result of an investigation into an argument between Crosby and a fellow worker.

While acknowledging that a heated verbal confrontation with a co-worker did take place, Crosby and Local 647 President Anthony Coates both said the termination was retaliation for Crosby's having actively pursued an investigation on behalf of the union into the sex-for-repairs scandal at Gilmor Homes, and for his strident criticism of management's handling of both the accusations and conditions at Gilmor Homes in general.

The argument, Crosby said, took place on Oct. 5, roughly a week after the Gilmor lawsuit was filed. The Housing Authority suspended him without pay two days later. Coates noted that Crosby was subsequently fired without a hearing, over the union's objections.

The Housing Authority declined to comment on "confidential personnel matters."

In July, Crosby went door to door in Gilmor to hear from residents about allegations of extortion and what he has described as "deplorable" safety conditions. He said that in early August, at a labor-management meeting, he shared his findings with the Housing Authority's Chief of Staff Kimberly Washington, Special Deputy for Operations Nicholas Calace, Associate Deputy Director of Public Housing Operations Sean Buchanan, and Chief Human Resources Officer Carla Walton.

But Crosby said that no action was taken by Housing Authority leadership, and that he was later told by Walton that she could not "act on hearsay." Crosby's investigation was, however, discovered by Hansel who included his signed affidavit regarding the allegations in the residents' lawsuit.

Crosby said that he has retained legal counsel and will be bringing suit against HABC for wrongful termination. "I feel a little humiliated. They taped the letter to my door. After 14 years of service, that's how they do me," Crosby said on Friday.

A longtime resident of Sandtown-Winchester where the Gilmor Homes are located, Crosby was defended by organizer Hopkins, union President Coates, and other members of the community. "He was a whistle-blower," said Hopkins. "Lucky was an inspector who is from the community and takes his job seriously."

Activist Christopher Ervin, who said he consulted with Crosby as he carried out his investigation at Gilmor, wrote on Facebook that the firing was "disgusting." "The irony is that here we have a Baltimore City employee who did the RIGHT thing and was fired," Ervin wrote.

Toni Addison Parker, who lives in a public-housing unit where Crosby worked, said Crosby was "one of the good ones," in an email on Friday. "He actually fixed our places and I never heard him come off in a disrespectful way like so many of these men that work here," Parker wrote.

As City Paper went to press on Monday, Graziano and four of his top officials at the Housing Authority met with a group of three public housing residents and activists who called for him to commit to resolving a long list of grievances about substandard living conditions and harassment by housing workers.

A group of about a dozen other residents and community organizers who were not allowed into the meeting stood outside housing headquarters on Fayette Street during the meeting, waving signs and chanting, "Stop intimidation!"

After the meeting, Communities United organizer John Comer said that Graziano had promised to meet a long list of demands for repairs and improvements to various of the city's public-housing projects.

What Graziano was unable to deliver, Comer said, were specifics as to how soon these improvements could be expected, or how Graziano proposed to pay for the work.

Demonstrators appeared unsatisfied by the proposed measures, chanting, "He's got to go!"

Observing Monday's demonstration, Lawrence Grandpre echoed demonstrators' sentiments. Grandpre is a member of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle and one of the activists who two weeks ago staged a sit-in at City Hall demanding, among other things, that Graziano resign. "Hearing some of the stories that people have been presenting here just kind of strengthens my personal resolve that people like Graziano need to go," Grandpre said.

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