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Landlord accused of demanding sex from tenants to pay $4.5M

Landlord accused of demanding sex from tenants to pay $4.5M

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A landlord accused of demanding sex from his low-income tenants under threat of eviction or in exchange for helping them receive rent assistance will pay more than $4 million to settle a federal lawsuit, the Department of Justice announced Tuesday.

The action against Joseph Centanni resolves a lawsuit filed in August 2020 that accused Centanni of engaging in “severe or pervasive sexual harassment” over a period of approximately 15 years. The settlement still must be approved by a federal judge.

According to the lawsuit, Centanni has owned numerous properties in and around the city of Elizabeth that accept federal Section 8 housing vouchers. He allegedly demanded oral sex in exchange for helping residents stay in their housing or receive rent assistance, and threatened to evict tenants who rejected his advances.

He would often take tenants or prospective tenants to empty apartments or storage rooms and ask them for massages, expose himself and force them to touch him sexually, according to the lawsuit. The victims numbered in the dozens though more could be identified, the DOJ said Tuesday.

“No one should have to submit to demands for sex in order to have a place to live,” Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general in the DOJ's civil rights division, said Tuesday.

Centanni will pay approximately $4.4 million to his victims, to be administered through a compensation fund, according to the DOJ. He also will pay the government a civil penalty of about $107,000 and will be prohibited from owning or managing rental properties. It represents the largest monetary settlement the DOJ has obtained in a case alleging sexual harassment in housing.

Centanni also faces multiple sexual assault and attempted sexual assault charges that were filed in March in Union County. A spokesperson for the Union County prosecutor's office said Tuesday that case is proceeding.

Raymond Londa, an attorney representing Centanni, said Centanni did not admit wrongdoing in the consent decree.

“Mr. Centanni settled the matter to avoid protracted litigation,” Londa said. “Mr. Centanni continues to deny the allegations.”