PHA settles sex-harassment suits, hides amount$

Attorney for one woman questions how agency can withhold such information

Posted: August 24, 2010

JUST AFTER salacious sex-harassment allegations against Carl R. Greene went public, an insurance carrier for the Philadelphia Housing Authority moved quickly to settle the complaint filed by PHA architect Elizabeth Helm.

Helm will receive $250,000, according to two PHA sources familiar with the settlement talks. A PHA spokeswoman yesterday declined to reveal how much money Helm will receive, saying that Helm's complaint had been settled and negotiated by PHA's insurance carrier.

The spokeswoman, Nichole Tillman, said the agency had settled with two other women who had filed sexual-harassment claims against Greene in the past five years, but she would not divulge the amount of their payouts either.

"These cases were settled and negotiated by PHA's insurance carriers," Tillman said yesterday. "That's all the information I can give you."

When asked how much PHA pays each year in insurance premiums and whether those premiums have increased in recent years, Tillman said she would look into the questions and get back to the Daily News.

Taxpayer watchdog groups yesterday expressed outrage that PHA - a state-chartered, federally funded public-housing agency - is withholding the amount of settlements footed by taxpayers.

"That's ridiculous," said Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for government transparency.

"If there are tax dollars involved in this in any way . . . I don't see how [PHA] can withhold the information." Helm's attorney, John M. Elliott, said a settlement agreement has not yet been signed.

"I haven't seen any settlement documents. Sometimes the devil is in the details," Elliott said. "Even if you may have an oral understanding, no case is settled until you [have settlement documents.]"

Elliott said he would not agree to any settlement that contains a confidentiality clause. But he declined to comment on how much Helm's payout could be.

Helm, 29, alleged that Greene dangled a promotion before her while making unwanted sexual advances, including "touching, grabbing and groping her," during an after-work "meeting" at a Center City bar that Greene arranged .

She said Greene had told her, "I know that you don't want to kiss me," then "grabbed her and forcibly did so," according to allegations in an April 21 letter from Elliott to PHA and several top city and state officials.

Helm filed a complaint against PHA and Greene with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In his April letter, Elliott referred to Helm as the "most recent victim" of Greene's "predatory pattern of sexual harassment."

At least two other former PHA staffers - Carolyn Griffith and Melissa Shingles - filed sexual-harassment complaints with the EEOC alleging improper conduct by Greene.

Shingles filed her complaint on Oct. 7, 2004; Griffith's complaint followed on Oct. 27, 2007, according to Shannon Powers, spokeswoman for the state Human Relations Commission.

Both cases were settled, PHA's Tillman confirmed yesterday.

Zack Stalberg, head of the Committee of Seventy, a government watchdog group, said it's not unusual for an insurance carrier and a plaintiff to agree to a confidentiality clause in which the settlement figure is not disclosed publicly.

But Stalberg said that since PHA pays its insurance premiums with taxpayer dollars, he believes the agency has some obligation to the public.

"Certainly the premium to the insurance carrier is paid for with public dollars," Stalberg said.

"And when you have someone like Greene, who seems to attract sexual-harassment suits, the public's got some right to know what that's costing."

Former Mayor John Street, who chairs PHA's Board of Commissioners, said he, too, was frustrated by disclosure constraints dictated by court-sanctioned agreements between PHA's insurance carrier and a complainant.

"I think it's a terrible policy and I think, at some point in time, it's got to be challenged," Street said.

He added, "It's just really convenient for everybody but the taxpayers."

Meanwhile, in a letter sent to Street and other PHA commissioners, Greene said he was taking a two-week leave.

He will resume the helm of PHA upon his return, the letter said.

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