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Alleged victims speak out against South Bend Housing Authority Board

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Disappointed and even sickened, that’s how people claiming to be victims of sexual harassment described The South Bend Housing Authority's Board of Directors' decision on Wednesday not to remove Marva Leonard-Dent, the Executive Director of the authority whose come under fire amidst sexual harassment accusations by former employees, from office. 

Three of four alleged victims planning to take part in a lawsuit against the housing authority met shortly after the meeting to discuss the decision.

“To me, when the board comes back while these things (accusations) and say that she needs to stay there to me says irresponsibility, it says insensitivity and it says they want to continue that environment for the employees that are still there and that’s totally unacceptable,” explained Andrew Straw, the attorney for the people claiming to be victims.  “In any other agency it would only take one employee alleging that (sexual harassment) and then that director would be placed on administrative leave.”

Two of Straw’s clients, Archie Robinson and Lt. Marcus Wright of the South Bend Police Department, claim that Leonard-Dent sexually harassed them personally.  His other clients, Terri Kennedy and Deborah Riley, claim to have been sexually harassed by co-workers at the housing authority and say that Leonard-Dent did nothing to stop it and punished them for reporting the harassment.  Robinson, Riley and Kennedy all said they were disappointed and even sickened by the board’s decision not to remove Leonard-Dent from office or at the very least put her and other managers on leave while an internal review is conducted.

“The reason they should be on administrative leave is so they can’t poison the atmosphere in the agency and at the housing authority our understanding is, when we talk to the employees, they’re afraid of her and so it makes them reluctant to come forward,” Straw explained.  “They need to protect evidence and they need to protect witnesses that can help the board, whereas if she’s there she can intimidate them in a variety of ways.”

In addition to Leonard-Dent’s removal, Straw and his clients are demanding a change in policies at the housing authority, better protection for employees, a better handbook instructing employees how to handle harassment claims and that the Department of Housing and Urban Development step in to reform the South Bend Housing Authority.  Straw said he’d requested South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg to take action as well.

“Because the mayor really appoints the board members, so he should have some say if they’re not doing their job properly,” Straw explained.  “He has the opportunity to lead on this.”

Straw’s clients are asking for millions of dollars in their planned lawsuit, but he claimed the focus of the suit is to change things at the housing authority.

“We’re going to go through step-by-step, piece-by-piece and make sure that at the end of the process the housing authority works well for employees, the board is protected and residents are better off,” he explained.  “South Bend will be better off.”

According to Straw, the first step in filing the lawsuit is making formal complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  He said Archie Robinson and Lt. Marcus Wright filed those complaints on Tuesday.

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