Investigators from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are looking into allegations that maintenance workers in Baltimore's public housing demanded sexual favors in exchange for making repairs, the city's top housing official said Wednesday.
HUD investigators have "asked for additional information. We are cooperating with them," said Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano.
The federal investigation comes as the Baltimore state's attorney's office has begun a criminal investigation and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City has launched its own review of allegations described in a federal lawsuit filed last month, officials have said.
Eleven women are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which alleges that workers sought sex for repairs at three properties: Gilmor Homes, Westport and Govans Manor. Some of the women describe sexual assault, others harassment. All claim violations of their constitutional and fundamental rights, including the right to physical security.
A spokesman for HUD's inspector general declined to comment, citing department policy regarding investigations.
Graziano, speaking to reporters at City Hall after attending Wednesday's Board of Estimates meeting, said he was unaware of the sex-for-repairs allegations in "any actionable way" until the woman filed suit.
"The first place where we got real names, real allegations was Sept. 28," Graziano said. "We have been working around the clock since that time to address these matters."
The lawyer who filed the suit says others in the Housing Authority were told about the problem long before that.
As part of the lawsuit, four tenants and two union representatives filed detailed affidavits alleging that they told officials about the problem at least eight times from 2012 to 2015.
"Any claim that the Housing Authority was unaware of sexual extortion in public housing in time to act is categorically false," said attorney Cary J. Hansel, who filed the lawsuit. "The plaintiffs and their witnesses filed more than eight complaints, mostly in the last three years, of sexual misconduct so severe that any one instance should have been aggressively pursued by the authorities. Yet they were all ignored — which resulted in the continued subjugation of these women to the sexual demands of the housing authority maintenance staff."
Housing officials were told about the allegations as early as 2006, when an agency employee "complained to the Gilmor property manager that both the employee and tenants were harassed by maintenance men," Hansel said.
Graziano declined to respond Wednesday when asked about assertions that officials were notified, saying only that there are "points of contention" between housing officials and the claims made in the lawsuit.
"As soon as we became aware, we have taken very strong actions," Graziano said. "We have sat down with eight of the named plaintiffs and their counsel. We have taken very severe personnel actions. I can't discuss the details."
Among the allegations, a 33-year-old woman who lives in Gilmor Homes says in the suit that she was coerced into performing oral sex on a maintenance man in 2008 so he would make repairs at her unit.
"She was young, scared, had just fled from an abusive relationship, and was worried about the health and safety of her daughter," the lawsuit states. "She felt she had no choice."
The lawsuit alleges that the "sexual demands have continued throughout her time at Gilmor and persist to the present."
Graziano, who serves both as the mayor's housing commissioner and as head of the federally funded housing authority, called the conduct described in the suit "totally unacceptable behavior. Anybody who engages in it will be dealt with in the harshest terms."
He has come under criticism over his handling of the allegations and the state of disrepair of Baltimore's public housing, where residents describe problems that include mice, roaches and mold.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has staunchly defended Graziano and did so again Wednesday, saying he is a national leader on housing issues.
"He is widely recognized across the country as one of the leading commissioners of a housing department," Rawlings-Blake said. She pointed to his plan to sell some public housing complexes to private developers as a way to raise money for much-needed renovations after the federal government sharply cut funding.
The mayor noted that her father grew up in Baltimore public housing at the Poe Homes.
"It's concerning all around," she said of the allegations. "That's why I'm looking forward to seeing the results of the investigation. The allegations are serious. They are something I'm taking seriously. ... Residents should not be made to feel vulnerable or preyed upon."
She praised Graziano's privatization plan, which she said would bring $350 million in improvements to the public housing complexes. She compared the lack of federal money to care for public housing to the lack of money to repair other infrastructure.
"It's like with water main leaks," Rawlings-Blake said. "We know there are going to be leaks today. We know there are going to be leaks tomorrow. Why? Because there's insufficient funding. It doesn't mean you should fire" public works director Rudy Chow.
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.