A Housing Authority of Baltimore City employee who joined a lawsuit accusing agency maintenance workers of harassment and sexual assault has been suspended indefinitely without pay.
Anthony Coates, a housing authority worker who also is president of the union representing maintenance workers, was suspended effective Monday. He recently filed an affidavit in U.S. District Court alleging that he and others had previously informed top housing authority officials that some workers were demanding sexual favors from tenants as a condition for making repairs to their homes.
The affidavit was in support of a federal lawsuit filed Sept. 28 by 11 tenants at three public housing complexes.
In a letter to Coates on Friday, a top housing authority official told him he was being suspended for violating the authority's "Code of Conduct policy." The letter does not elaborate. Housing authority officials declined to discuss Coates' suspension, citing the need for confidentiality in personnel matters.
Several City Council members said Monday they are concerned about the appearance that a "whistle-blower" was fired. The council is preparing to hold a hearing looking into the housing authority, which already is the subject of a criminal investigation by city prosecutors and another investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Word of Coates' suspension comes as the authority recently acknowledged it had abolished its office of inspector general late last year. The office had been charged with rooting out corruption and misconduct.
Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he does not know whether Coates' suspension was retaliatory, but he plans to look into the situation. Young said he also is troubled by the firing of another union official, Lucky Crosby Sr., who was dismissed last month. Crosby also filed an affidavit in the lawsuit.
"I'm really concerned about it," Young said. "You don't fire people because they're outspoken."
Coates, 60, who started working for the authority in 1995 as a drywall contractor, declined to comment Monday.
Paul T. Graziano, who heads the housing authority, and other top officials declined a request for comment Monday.
Graziano has said he finds the allegations in the lawsuit "extremely disturbing."
The letter to Coates says that under the code of conduct, "every employee is expected to extend courtesy, assistance, respect and integrity to co-workers, residents, and the general public." It does not detail what specific actions Coates allegedly took to violate the policy.
Crosby, 48, said he believes he and Coates are being disciplined for speaking out against the housing authority. He has worked for the agency for 13 years. Crosby has said he found a notice taped to his door last month saying he was being terminated for "workplace violence." He is contesting his termination and awaiting a grievance hearing.
Coates and Crosby joined the lawsuit Oct. 19, saying they had informed top officials of the allegations made by women at the Gilmor Homes and other complexes, but no action was taken.
The two union representatives warned multiple senior housing officials about the allegations in August, Crosby said Monday. In response, the two men were told to stop investigating and instructed not to put any of the allegations in writing, both Crosby and Coates wrote in their affidavits.
A top official of their union, Glenard Middleton, issued a statement Monday expressing concern about the actions taken against the two men.
"It appears that the Housing Authority of Baltimore City has taken retaliatory action against these two employees for exercising their protected rights as local union representatives," said Middleton, executive director of AFSCME Council 67, Maryland Public Employees Union.
"We believe that Housing Authority of Baltimore City leadership's time would be better spent making repairs and serving the residents instead of going on a witch hunt to try to place blame for their shortcomings on dedicated workers," Middleton said.
In the lawsuit, the women contend that their constitutional rights were violated by several maintenance men who harassed them and sexually abused them, leaving one woman without heat for years and forcing others to live with mold and rodent infestations. They alleged the abuse took place at three complexes over the past several years.
The housing authority will begin settlement talks with the women in January, court records show.
Cary J. Hansel and Annie B. Hirsch, the attorneys representing the women, expressed disappointment Monday over Coates' suspension and Crosby's firing.
"The Housing Authority takes two steps backward every time it takes one step forward," the attorneys said in a statement. "We appreciate recent efforts to belatedly address our clients' concerns, but punishing whistle-blowers is a sure sign of failed leadership."
Councilmen Bill Henry and Carl Stokes said they are consulting with the council's lawyer and the city solicitor to determine what power the council has to compel housing authority officials to testify. The agency is independent from city government, and it is not clear whether the council can subpoena Graziano or his deputies.
"These are very troubling concerns being raised," Henry said. "I am not sure what authority the council has."
Stokes said he does not want to speculate on the reason for the disciplinary action against Coates and Crosby, but "it's always a bad move" to fire or suspend someone who could be considered a whistle-blower before an investigation has concluded.
"It puts a chilling effect on the entire process," Stokes said.
He recently called for the council to investigate the housing authority. No hearing has been set.