Harassment suit settled for $2.7M

Abbi Overfelt | Civitas Media Southeastern Community & Family Services’ office in Laurinburg relocated from Main Street when the agency moved the majority of its offices to Lumberton in June 2014.

LAURINBURG —The former Four County Community Services will pay a $2.7 million settlement to more than a dozen women who accused two agency employees of demanding sexual favors in exchange for federal housing.

The settlement, filed today in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, includes attorneys’ fees, compensation for the 16 women named in the federal lawsuit, and a fund to compensate other victims who have yet to come forward, according to a statement from Legal Aid of North Carolina. Legal Aid received funding to assist in the case through a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Housing Initiatives Program.

The case, filed in 2012 by Craig Hensel of Hensel Law PLLC in Greensboro, was consolidated with a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice in December. As part of the negotiations by the department, John Wesley and Eric Pender are prohibited from having any involvement with the Section 8 housing program administered by the agency, which changed its name to Southeastern Community & Family Services and moved its offices to Lumberton in June 2014.

The agency will be required to appoint an independent manager of its Section 8 program and submit to ongoing monitoring to prevent any incidents of sexual harassment. The settlement also prohibits Wesley and Pender from management duties at any residential property.

Southeastern employs more than 200 people and distributes about $15 million annually through state and federal grants to operate 16 Head Start programs and administer housing assistance programs in Scotland, Robeson, Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus, Hoke and Pender counties, including the Housing Choice Voucher program, better known as Section 8. According to the lawsuit, Wesley and Pender repeatedly demanded sex from the female plaintiffs in exchange for awarding them a Section 8 voucher, passing their homes for inspection, increasing the amount of their subsidies and moving them up on the waiting list.

“This is a huge victory for our clients,” said Kelly Clarke, the lead attorney for Legal Aid’s Fair Housing Project. “When they first came forward, no one believed them and they had no hope for justice. Now they have a team of lawyers and the U.S. government on their side. That is powerful vindication. We are thankful to the U.S. Department of Justice for its instrumental role in bringing hope and justice to our clients and other women who were victims of this sexual harassment.”

Lawyers in the case also included George Hausen, executive director of Legal Aid, and Chris Brancart of Brancart & Brancart in Loma Mar, California.

On July 1, 2014, Hensel and Legal Aid filed a restraining order against the agency, saying that housing contracts had been cancelled for at least one of their clients in retaliation for coming forward with claims of sexual assault.

“We want all the victims to know there is nothing to be afraid of anymore,” Hensel said. “Although SCFS did not fire Wesley and Pender until three years after the lawsuit was filed, they’re now gone for good, and other women who were victimized should not hesitate to come forward.”

It is unclear when Wesley and Pender’s service to Southeastern ended, but last December, after the Justice Department filed its suit, agency CEO Ericka Whitaker released a statement saying that Wesley was required to be accompanied by a female employee on home or site visits. Neither employee was released at that time, she said, stressing that they had not been charged with a crime, but Pender was placed on suspension without pay.

In a statement released today, Whitaker said the lawsuit involved “parties that are no longer with the agency,” and that the hiring process for a new manager to oversee the Section 8 program began in March.

“I make no pretense of knowing what actually occurred with all parties allegedly involved in this case,” the statement read. “What I do know is that fighting an ongoing legal battle is unproductive for the agency. Our mission is to serve those who seek this agency for services. This case has been in litigation for three years, and involves parties that are no longer with the agency. It was in the best interest of the agency, our stakeholders, and those we serve to settle this case and move forward.”

Whitaker took her post on Jan. 20, 2014, two years after the lawsuit was filed and months after the firing of longtime Executive Director Richard Greene following an audit by the state Department of Health and Human Services, which administers Head Start funds, that discovered inappropriate bidding and hiring practices within the organization. In February 2014, state auditors released a report detailing misuse of $4.8 million of taxpayer dollars under Greene’s leadership.

The agency has established new safeguards, Whitaker said, including a revision of the sexual harassment policy which makes it clear that a violation will result in discipline. All male housing inspectors are now required to be accompanied by a female employee, a 24-hour surveillance system has been installed throughout the agency and all employees are now required to receive training annual on sexual harassment.

More than 400 families per month were served last year under the agency’s Section 8 voucher program, according to Whitaker, who does not anticipate losing funding due to the settlement.

“The agency is insured and had full coverage to settle this matter, therefore programs and services have not been interrupted,” said Jason King, chairman of Southeastern’s board and an assistant county manager in Robeson County.

Legal Aid is available to assist other women who believe they were sexually assaulted or harassed while seeking services. They can call the Fair Housing Project at 855-797-3247 or the U.S. Department of Justice at 1-800-896-7743, option 94, within 120 days.

Reach Laurinburg Exchange Editor Abbi Overfelt at 910-506-3023.