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Settlement reached in Baltimore sex-for-repairs case

A settlement was reached Monday in a lawsuit that accused maintenance workers in Baltimore of demanding sex from at least 19 women in exchange for basic repairs at public housing units, representatives for both sides of the case said.

The city’s housing authority and a lawyer representing the women confirmed that they’d reached the agreement for an undisclosed amount of money. It must be approved by the court and the U .S. Department of Housing. Settlement talks were held Dec. 18 and Dec. 23.

An attorney representing the women would not disclose the settlement amount or comment on its terms, but he said the problems outlined in the lawsuit were addressed before negotiations began.

The housing authority fired the accused workers, implemented a new tracking system for work orders and hired 50 new maintenance workers, said Cary J. Hansel.

Additionally, Baltimore housing chief Paul T. Graziano met with each of Hansel’s clients and toured their units, Hansel said. They have been offered vouchers that would allow them to move into privately owned units, Hansel said, adding that housing authority has “gone to great lengths to improve itself in a very short period of time.”

“Every person I can identify who was abusing these women was fired from his job and barred from the property for life. Not only does it get our clients out of harm’s way, it sends a strong message,” Hansel said in a phone interview Tuesday.

The lawsuit, filed in September and amended in November, inspired outrage in Baltimore, where economic disparity and housing inequality were thrown into focus during protest and civil unrest following the death of Freddie Gray. The 25-year-old black man died after suffering a critical spinal injury while in police custody. The incident drew attention to deep systemic issues in Baltimore, including conditions in its public housing complexes.

The amended complaint, which sought class certification, estimated as many as 750 women could be included as plaintiffs.

Criminal investigation ongoing

The lawsuit included accounts by women who alleged they had been victimized by handymen whose neglect resulted in squalid conditions including leaks, insect infestations and dangerous mold growth. Some of the alleged abuses date back to 2008, according to the lawsuit.

One victim claimed she was forced to sleep next to the oven because the handyman wouldn’t fix her heat without sexual favors in return. The victim, an administrative assistant to HABC’s deputy executive director, also said she told her boss; an auditor sent to investigate her complaint then told her he could “not guarantee her safety” if she moved forward with it.

Another woman alleged a repairman said he would “do a Bill Cosby on her,” which the plaintiff “came to understand meant he was threatening to drug and rape her,” according to the complaint. After rejecting his advances, the woman alleged the repairman fixed apartments affected by a water leak above and below her but not her home.

A third woman alleged repairs were made to her apartment only after details in the original lawsuit were widely publicized earlier this year.

The lawsuit claimed HABC ignored numerous complaints and allowed the repairmen to “maintain their positions of power.”

Additionally, the lawsuit alleged that the housing authority actively thwarted an investigation conducted by the local chapter of the municipal employees union that resulted in a recommendation that the handymen in question be fired.

The case is Smith, et al. v. The City of Baltimore, et al., 1:15-cv-02921-GLR.

Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Rochelle Ritchie says a criminal investigation into the matter is ongoing.