State Watch

Landlord accused of sexually harassing tenants to pay $4.5M to settle federal lawsuit

The Department of Justice announced on Tuesday that a landlord has agreed to pay $4.5 million in damages and a civil penalty after he was accused of sexual harassment. 

Joseph Centanni, who owns hundreds of rentals in New Jersey and was a participant in the federal Housing Choice Voucher Program, was accused of sexually harassing his tenants and applicants for over 15 years, the department said in a statement.

According to the DOJ, Centanni brought housing applicants and tenants to empty apartments or empty laundry or storage rooms that he owned. He would then request massages or oral sex. He also would expose himself and force people to touch him sexually. Centanni allowed people who complied with his demands to keep their housing or move in. Prosecutors said he rejected applications or evicted people who did not comply. 

“The need for housing is a basic human need,” acting U.S. Attorney Rachael A. Honig of the District of New Jersey said in a statement. “Joseph Centanni exploited that need, and the important federal programs that attempt to meet it, by threatening to deny his victims a roof over their heads if they did not submit to his demands for sexual acts.” 

If approved by a federal judge, Centanni will pay $4,392,950 in monetary damages to tenants and applicants who were impacted by the harassment in addition to a $107,050 civil penalty. The payment is the largest monetary settlement that the DOJ has seen for a sexual harassment case in housing, the department said.

“This lawsuit and historic settlement send a clear message that the Department will not stand by idly as landlords abuse their power to prey on vulnerable tenants,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who works in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, also said in the statement, adding that “sexual harassment of tenants is abhorrent and unlawful.”

There are separate, ongoing, criminal prosecutions against Centanni brought on by prosecutors in Union County, N.J. For that case, the landlord has been charged with coercing 20 tenants into sexual acts in exchange for financial relief. He faces 13 counts of second-degree sexual assault, 1 count of second-degree attempted sexual assault and 21 counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual contact, according to the DOJ.

“Mr. Centanni settled the matter to avoid protracted litigation,” Centanni’s attorney, Raymond Londa, told The Associated Press in a statement. “Mr. Centanni continues to deny the allegations.” 

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