The Philadelphia Housing Authority is moving toward settling a fourth sexual-harassment complaint against former Executive Director Carl R. Greene for $500,000 - twice what it was offering a year ago.
If Elizabeth Helm, who complained of a series of unwanted advances, accepts the offer, it would push the amount PHA has paid to deal with allegations of sexual harassment against Greene to nearly $1.2 million.
The allegations by Helm, a former interior designer at the agency, blew the lid off PHA, exposing a culture of fear, abuse, and secrecy at the agency Greene had led since 1998.
Just weeks after details of her complaint became public, Greene was fired last September when PHA's board learned that the agency had secretly paid $648,000 to settle three other complaints against him. Former Mayor John F. Street, who was PHA's board chairman until last March, called Greene a "serial" sexual harasser.
The PHA offered to settle Helm's complaint in August for $250,000, but Helm refused because the deal included a confidentiality clause like the three secret settlements. Two of those complaints were filed against Greene in 2004 and a third in 2008.
"It was another instrument of intimidation," said her lawyer, John M. Elliott. "They wanted to set a trap: We'll pay you X dollars, but you have to keep this confidential."
"But this is the public's business," Elliott said. "And it will be done in public."
Clifford Haines, an attorney for Greene, said he only learned on Monday of the possible settlement, spelled out in a draft resolution for the PHA board. He said he had not been consulted.
"If your figure is correct," he said, "they are paying 100 percent more than they agreed to a year ago. I can't imagine what would justify that."
Greene is suing the authority in federal court, contending he was denied his right to defend his reputation before the board.
Helm, 30, said Greene had previously made offensive remarks to her, but on April 12, 2010, she alleged, he made physical advances, "touching, grabbing, and groping her" during a dinner. He pressured her to attend, she said, ostensibly to discuss a potential promotion.
After that, she sought a leave, and on April 21, Elliott sent a letter to PHA's five commissioners as well as to Mayor Nutter and Gov. Ed Rendell. It described the dinner incident and a hostile workplace where Greene, 54, intimidated employees while the board looked the other way.
"With Greene and the board members, not a single one of them did anything to try to help this young lady," Elliott said. "But for the media disclosing this pattern of misconduct and the subsequent involvement of the federal government, this would have been swept under the rug."
"Betsy Helm had the courage to fight back," he said.
Following the disclosure of multiple sexual-harassment accusations and settlements, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development pressured PHA's board members to resign. HUD appointed acting Deputy Secretary Estelle Richman to take over as the lone commissioner, while appointing Michael P. Kelly as the agency's administrative receiver.
The proposed settlement for Helm is expected to go before Richman at Friday's board meeting.
Meanwhile, the FBI and the office of inspector general for HUD are investigating the use of public money during Greene's tenure as executive director.
A draft of the resolution, obtained by The Inquirer, says the Helm settlement would be paid with non-federal funds.
"We want to continue to move forward," Kelly said in an interview last Friday, adding that a third-party mediator had been brought in to help facilitate a settlement.
Helm filed sexual-harassment complaints with state and federal agencies on April 30, 2010.
After investigating Helm's allegations, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued her "right to sue" letters, clearing the way for her to pursue recourse in court.
Haines said he was concerned that PHA's motive in handling Helm's complaint might be to "not only settle a case, but hurt Carl Greene."
Haines said Greene plans to "tell the full story" in his suit against the housing agency.
Helm was hired by PHA in 2009 as an interior designer. Soon after she joined the agency, she said, she had to begin reporting directly to Greene. Her office, too, was moved next to his in the executive suite.
In the 2010 letter her attorney sent to the board, mayor and governor, she said Greene insisted that she meet him for dinner at the Prime Rib restaurant to discuss PHA-related matters.
Greene, the letter said, praised her work and assured her that he was processing her paperwork for a promotion. He then "continued to pursue inappropriate and unwanted contact of an intimate nature, while admitting to Ms. Helm that he knew his misconduct was unwelcome."