Insurer could pay $250,000 in Greene harassment charge

Posted: August 23, 2010

An insurer for the Philadelphia Housing Authority has reportedly agreed to pay $250,000 to settle a sexual harassment claim against executive director Carl R. Greene, but PHA still faces a host of other controversies.

A women's rights group is calling for an investigation of Greene's conduct, and U.S. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) wants to know why Greene is better paid than Mayor Nutter and Gov. Rendell combined. Meanwhile, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is investigating how PHA is using $31 million in stimulus money.

The insurer's agreement to pay $250,000 to settle the harassment complaint came as the PHA's board chairman, former Mayor John F. Street, said he was perturbed that the case was being resolved without any input from the board of commissioners.

"I question the propriety of settling the case," Street said, while the PHA board is "in the middle" of trying to determine what happened between Greene, 53, and Elizabeth Helm, 29, a former interior decorator with PHA.

Because the settlement will be paid with funds from PHA's insurance company, no vote is required by the board, said spokesman Kirk Dorn.

"Cases where the insurance company settles do not require board approval," said Dorn. "There's no PHA money."

Helm's attorney, John M. Elliott, said yesterday the insurance firm, the nonprofit Housing Authority Risk Retention Group, "accepted our settlement demands," on Friday.

But the agreement is not yet in writing, Elliott said.

"I've seen no document about a settlement and no case is settled until a settlement agreement is executed," he said.

Elliott said his client has refused to sign a confidentiality agreement and added that she will "fully cooperate with any federal or state authorities who are investigating Carl Greene or PHA," he said.

Asked whether there was a current investigation under way, he said, "I don't know."

Helm was an interior designer and planner for the housing authority. She accused Greene of unwanted sexual advances in April, prompting her to file complaints with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In a four-page letter sent April 21 to Street, Mayor Nutter, Gov. Rendell and nine others, Elliott accused Greene of "serial predatory sexual misconduct" and alleged that he groped Helm at the Prime Rib Restaurant at 1701 Locust St. after "insisting" she meet him there.

During dinner, Elliott wrote, Greene made advances including "touching, grabbing, and groping her." Despite her insistence that he stop, Greene "continued to forcibly and physically pursue inappropriate and unwanted contact of an intimate nature."

Helm was so traumatized by the event that she was advised by her doctor not to return to work. She requested a medical leave, but was denied one by PHA.

When her vacation time was exhausted and she did not return to work, PHA stopped paying her.

Helm applied for unemployment compensation, Elliott said, but PHA challenged her request. "That is retaliation at a very ugly level," he said.

The Helm allegation, and reports of three other sexual harassment complaints against Greene, prompted the Women's Law Project to call on the PHA board to investigate the allegations and publicly disclose the results.

Carol E. Tracy, executive director of the Philadelphia group, said Greene should be placed on leave until that probe is completed.

The Law Project is well known in legal circles, and has a long track record of success in the courtroom.

Tracy said Greene's job is a "very important public position . . . and the charges are very serious."

Any investigation should examine whether the PHA board had been vigilant in its oversight of Greene, including whether it was aware that insurers had settled past complaints brought against him, she said.

"What did they know and when did they know it?" Tracy asked.

Greene was hired to head PHA in 1998 amid allegations that he had sexually harassed an employee of a Detroit housing commission that he headed. That complaint was resolved with a settlement under which the complainant was paid money and Greene admitted no wrongdoing.

As of now, however, Greene has decided on his own to take several weeks off to deal with what he has described as stress-related exhaustion.

Greene's troubles started ten days ago with the disclosure that he was facing foreclosure on his $615,035 townhouse in the upscale Naval Square development in the city's Schuylkill section. The next day, news broke that he was being dunned by the IRS for $52,000 in back taxes. Both matters have since been resolved, according to Greene.

After dropping out of sight for much of last week, on Thursday he announced he was taking a break, and on Friday told the Inquirer, "I have suffered from personal failings," he said, "I offer my most humble apologies to the world."

Greene said he was emotionally undone by the lien, filed in December, which froze his bank account and meant he could not pay the mortgage.

The Inspector General's office of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has also opened an investigation into PHA's use of stimulus funds for renovating 340 scattered-site vacant houses.

The program audit, started last month, involves the spending of $31 million in federal stimulus dollars.

The inspector general has subpoenaed the Social Security numbers of 28 employees, an unusual move PHA is challenging. It is not clear why the information is being sought, but in an interview last Friday, Greene said he considered it an invasion of the employees' privacy.

Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, asked HUD Secretary Shaun L.S. Donovan why Greene's salary is $306,370 - about $100,000 more than Donovan himself earns.

Combined with a $44,188 bonus, that is more that Gov. Rendell and Mayor Nutter's pay.

Grassley demanded to know if HUD "was aware of questionable financial activities" at PHA, and what complaints have been filed "by employees regarding problems at the housing authority."

He also wanted to know about $2.12 weekly payroll deductions nonunion employees at PHA are required to make to a murky nonprofit Greene established called the Pennsylvania Institute of Affordable Housing.

PHA has received about $127 million in federal stimulus money it is using that to build or renovate 1,200 units of housing.

Grassley said giving that much money to PHA was "alarming" and asked for "any evaluations, reviews, reports or other materials prepared by HUD or a third party contractor."

"What's been found emphasizes the concerns I've expressed this summer" Grassley wrote, "about the ability of federal housing officials to manage stimulus dollars in a responsible way."

Contact staff writer Nathan Gorenstein at 215-854-2797 or ngorenstein@phillynews.com.

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