BALTIMORE – A Fledgling women’s rights group that used mobile billboards, an online petition and Facebook advertisements to push for the ouster of Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano says it plans to continue the campaign, which grew from a sex-for-repairs scheme at public housing complexes.
Ultra Violet’s chief campaigns officer, Karin Roland, said the group will use advertising, events and “other creative tactics” to goad Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to fire Graziano. She said the campaign also is intended to highlight systemic abuses of women.
“The city and Paul Graziano turned their backs on the most vulnerable women,” said Roland, who is based in Portland, Ore. “It’s outrageous, and Mayor Rawlings-Blake continues to defend him.”
Graziano, the city’s housing chief for 15 years, said he took swift action after learning in late July of claims that maintenance men were demanding sexual favors before making repairs at Gilmor Homes.
In the months since then, he said, the agency investigated, agreed to pay $8 million to settle a class-action lawsuit, took disciplinary action against the three alleged perpetrators and made plans to hire 50 new maintenance workers.
“I have never condoned any sexual harassment,” Graziano said in a statement Friday, adding that the agency’s actions were intended to ensure “all residents can live in peace and dignity without being subjected to the atrocious behavior of a small group of people who inflicted indignity of an indescribable nature.”
Rawlings-Blake continues to have confidence in Graziano, mayoral spokesman Howard Libit said. The resident advisory council also has publicly backed Graziano, he said.
Graziano “took these allegations seriously, and as soon as he had any specifics, he investigated,” Libit said.
Ultra Violet — which is tied to a California-based nonprofit focused on accelerating social change through technology — paid for two mobile billboards that toured around Baltimore Wednesday and Thursday and Facebook ads targeted to city residents for a week. The group has more than 35,000 email addresses on an online petition that calls for Rawlings-Blake to fire Graziano.
The group has a Washington mailing address and a staff of about 20 spread across the country. Roland said Ultra Violet spun off from Citizen Engagement Laboratory as an independent nonprofit on Jan. 1. The group was founded under the California nonprofit about three years ago.
Roland said news reports sparked the attention of Ultra Violet’s members, who wanted to speak out against the sexual abuse allegations. Their billboards say Graziano “ignored rape reports for years” and asks “why hasn’t the mayor fired him?”
Rape — which is legally defined as forceable sexual intercourse using threats, weapons or physical injury — was not among the allegations in the lawsuit brought by 19 women at three complexes who outlined claims of sexual harassment and abuse over three years.
Graziano said the only other time he was made aware of a complaint similar to those in the suit was in 2013. The results of an investigation at that time were inconclusive, he said.
Libit questioned Ultra Violet’s motives.
“It’s clear this group isn’t interested in trying to improve the conditions of public housing in Baltimore,” Libit said. “They’re about getting media headlines in the most offensive way possible without any regard for the truth.”
Cary J. Hansel and Annie B. Hirsch, lawyers for the women who brought suit, said they have been impressed with the swiftness of Graziano’s actions since their claims were filed in court. Hansel said in his 17 years as a civil rights lawyer he had not seen a government agency move as quickly.
“Conditions before we got involved were inexcusably reprehensible without question,” Hansel said. “But if we’re going to point the finger when there’s a problem, it’s equally important to recognize when appropriate steps have been taken.”
John P. Comer, lead organizer with Maryland Communities United, said its membership is divided on whether Graziano should remain in charge. The advocacy group helped organize the women and encouraged them to come forward.
Comer said some of the group’s members who live in public housing are pleased with the actions the agency has taken to address the women’s claims and resolve outstanding maintenance issues in the complexes. Others think Graziano should be removed, Comer said.
Graziano’s tenure is likely to come to an end this year whether he resigns or is fired by Rawlings-Blake, who isn’t seeking re-election. All leading mayoral candidates have said, if elected, they would install a new housing chief.