WASHINGTON -- Tens of thousands of activists are calling for Baltimore's housing commissioner to be fired, saying he turned a blind eye to alleged sexual harassment by the housing department's maintenance workers.
At least 35,000 members of the anti-sexism organization UltraViolet have signed a petition demanding the ouster of the commissioner, Paul Graziano.
“[The commissioner] let these abuses go on for too long and should have been more proactive when these complaints were initially brought to his agency's attention. This could have saved more women from suffering this fate,” Nita Chaudhary, a co-founder of UltraViolet, told The Huffington Post.
UltraViolet claims that Graziano, who has overseen the city’s public housing for 15 years, knew since 2013 that maintenance workers were asking tenants for sex in exchange for repairs and did nothing about it.
Mobile billboards commissioned by the group, tagged #GrazianoMustGo, circled the mayor’s office and the Baltimore Housing Authority on Wednesday.
Rawlings-Blake has tirelessly defended Graziano since the allegations surfaced and even called him “a national leader in his field” in November.
“The Housing Commissioner and his team took these allegations very seriously from the very beginning, and that was demonstrated in the settlement reached with the female residents,” said Howard Libit, a spokesman for the mayor's office. “The Mayor continues to have confidence in Commissioner Graziano. He took these allegations seriously, investigated them and handled the employee discipline issues.”
Complaints date back to 2008, according to a lawsuit filed against the city in September on behalf of 20 women living in public housing. According to the suit, when one tenant went to a maintenance office to inquire about repairs, a worker allegedly “pushed himself back from his desk, unzipped his fly [and] exposed his penis" and then allegedly asked her, “What can you do with this?”
The lawsuit also claimed authorities knew about the abuses since 2013.
"Internal e-mail communications show that the sexual harassment complaint of one of the plaintiffs made it to the desk of the Inspector General of the Housing Authority as early as December 31, 2013 at 10:11 a.m.,” the complaint reads. “The email chain shows that the Community Liaison, the Senior Director of Asset Management, the Inspector General and other top [Housing Authority of Baltimore City] officials were informed of many of the exact same facts later raised in this complaint.”
Investigations into whether Graziano was aware of the email were inconclusive. Graziano maintains that he first became aware of the abuses in July and that the housing authority has since reformed.
“The Housing Authority of Baltimore City has made sweeping changes to ensure that all residents can live in peace and dignity without being subjected to the atrocious behavior of a small group of people who inflicted indignity of an indescribable nature,” he said in an email.
Graziano opened a hotline for women to anonymously report abuses and fired two maintenance workers after the lawsuit was filed. Earlier this month, the city settled with the plaintiffs for nearly $8 million. As part of the settlement, the women will be moved into livable housing and the three workers personally accused of sexual assault in the complaint have already been fired.
To activists, what happened to these women is part of a larger pattern of mismanagement within Baltimore Public Housing.
Many of the women said they felt they had no choice but to give in to the maintenance men. In their testimony they said they worried their children would get sick from mold infestations, injured by electrocution hazards or freeze from a lack of heat.
“Under his tenure, residents have faced lead poisoning, unfair evictions, and racial segregation. [Graziano’s] oversight on these issues is deplorable and this is why he must go,” Chaudhary said.