Agency denies move is effort to hush women’s complaints

Last updated: July 03. 2014 1:59PM - 1266 Views
By - aoverfelt@civitasmedia.com

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RALEIGH — The agency newly christened as Southeastern Community & Family Services says that the condition of a client’s property is the reason her housing contract is facing cancellation, denying allegations that the contract is being discontinued because of claims she has made that employees extorted sexual favors from female clients in exchange for benefits.

In a statement, the agency, formerly known as Four-County Community Services, said the woman is an existing client.

“She holds an active Section 8 [Housing and Urban Development] voucher that can be applied to any private residential property in Scotland County that meets HUD’s quality standards … Unfortunately, the property this client chose to reside (in) is not in compliance with program requirements,” the statement said.

Legal Aid of North Carolina and Craig Hensel of Hensel Law filed a motion for temporary injunction in federal district court on Monday, alleging the nonprofit agency attempted to cancel the housing contract with the plaintiff’s landlord “which would effectively render (the client) homeless.”

“This is clear-cut retaliation,” said Kelly Clarke, an attorney with Legal Aid’s Fair Housing Project, in a statement. “They’re targeting (her) to scare the other women into keeping quiet. We’re asking the court for a restraining order to protect these women, and any witnesses that might come forward, from retaliation for speaking out against sexual abuse.”

A lawsuit was initially filed in September 2012 including allegations from a total of nine women, all of whom sought to obtain Section 8 housing benefits in the three years prior. The case was set to be heard in Scotland County Superior Court this month, but was removed to U.S. District Court in May due to allegations that employee conduct violated the Federal Fair Housing Act.

“As previously stated, we are well-aware of this ongoing case, which has been in litigation since 2012. Since this is a super sensitive matter for all parties involved, we, as a collective body, have decided that we will not participate in a media trial of this case for the best interest of the agency and those we serve,” Ericka Whitaker, the agency’s CEO, said in the statement.

Known as Four-County Community Services since 1975, the agency which distributes some $16 million in federal and state funds announced its name change just this week following a move of its main office from downtown Laurinburg, where it had been located for more than 20 years, to downtown Lumberton.

According to the lawsuit, John Wesley, who determines how Section 8 benefits are disbursed, and Eric Pender, who performs home inspections, threatened to withhold benefits if the women did not engage in sexual acts. The lawsuit states that Pender, a resident of Hoke County and Wesley, who lives in Scotland County, remain employed by Southeastern and that prior to his employment with the agency, Pender was fired from the N.C. Highway Patrol due to sexual harassment.

The agency has repeatedly declined to comment on all counts, and Wesley and Pender have been barred by the agency from speaking about the case.

Monday’s motion asks that all communication to any plaintiffs, some of whom remain clients of the agency’s Section 8 housing program, be directed to counsel and subject to review by the court.

The motion, accompanied by a brief providing background information about the lawsuit, alleges that the client was pushed into accepting a “filthy” and decrepit rental home, with which Wesley found no significant issue until the client refused his alleged repeated sexual advances and then sought action against him.

“FCCS put (the client) in a deficient house, sexually extorted her to see it pass inspection, ignored her warnings that it was deficient, and then, after her filing of a lawsuit, threatened to stop her benefits for the exact issues that she had warned FCCS about prior to moving in,” the brief states. The brief relates allegations made by clients of sexual misconduct and supporting information from witnesses.

The suit requests that the trial be heard by a jury and that damages no less than $25,000 be awarded to each of the nine women.

“By demanding sex in exchange for allowing these women to participate in the Section 8 program,” Hensel said in the statement, “Wesley and Pender established a system of sexual quid pro quo that essentially forced their victims, who have few options when it comes to housing, to decide between homelessness and sexual humiliation. That’s not just disgusting, it’s illegal.”

In addition to the Section 8 housing program, Four-County operates 16 Head Start programs and a weatherization project in the seven counties it serves. According to Hensel, the agency is listed as a defendant in the suit because it is culpable for the actions of its employees.

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