LAURINBURG: Legal group defending women in sex-for-homes case - WFLA News Channel 8

Sexual extortion complainants fear retaliation

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Notices pepper the door of the previous headquarters of Four County Community Services in Laurinburg. Notices pepper the door of the previous headquarters of Four County Community Services in Laurinburg.

Attorneys have filed a restraining order against a non-profit agency and two of its employees who are accused of sexual exploitation.

Legal Aid of North Carolina's Fair Housing Project and Greensboro attorney Craig Hensel are asking a United States district court to prevent Southeastern Community and Family Services, John Wesley and Eric Pender from retaliating against eight women who claimed Wesley and Pender extorted sex in exchange for facilitating their participation in a federal housing subsidy program.

"They are a vulnerable section of the population that is in need of public assistance," Hensel said.

The women first brought charges against the Laurinburg-based Four-County Community Services in state superior court in September 2012. They said that from 2011 to 2013, Wesley and Pender demanded sexual favors in exchange for granting the vouchers and conducting favorable home inspections so the women could qualify for the Section 8 housing program.

"A client will go in, apply for benefits, and either John Wesley or Eric Pender -- the two individual defendants in the case -- will approach them and solicit sexual favors from them with a promise that their benefits will be helped," Hensel explained.

According to a press release, FCCS receives funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to manage the Section 8 housing subsidy program for low-income renters in Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus, Hoke, Pender, Robeson and Scotland counties. The group recently moved its headquarters from Laurinburg to Lumberton, but it maintains an office in Laurinburg.

The accusers said the men visited the women's homes to solicit sex, made sexually suggestive phone calls, exposed themselves and touched the women sexually without their consent, the press release said.

"By demanding sex in exchange for allowing these women to participate in the Section 8 program, Wesley and Pender established a system of sexual quid pro quo that essentially forced their victims, who have few options when it comes to housing, to decide between homelessness and sexual humiliation," Hensel said. "That's not just disgusting, it's illegal."

In a deposition with FCCS attorneys, 32-year-old Khristen Sellers -- one of eight plaintiffs -- testifies about her interactions with Pender, saying she believed that "if I have sex with him, that he would sign that paper. Basically what's going to get my rent paid."

Hensel said since filing the lawsuit, the group has sought to terminate Sellers' Section 8 voucher, alleging that her home did not pass inspection, although Hensel said it always did when the harassment was occurring.

"They're going to stop paying her landlord," Hensen said. "In fact, they already have stopped paying her landlord her portion of the rent and she can't afford the remainder of the rent. She can't afford the entire rent by herself, so that's effectively an eviction."

An attorney with Legal Aid's Fair Housing Project called the action "clear-cut retaliation."

"They're targeting her to scare the other women into keeping quiet. We're asking the court for a restraining order to protect these women, and any witnesses that might come forward, from retaliation for speaking out against sexual abuse," Kelly Clarke said.

Hensel is asking a federal judge in Greensboro to force FCCS to issue the Sellers a new Section 8 voucher and give her sufficient time to find a new home, prevent FCCS and its employees from communicating with the women except through counsel, and prevent the group from adversely affecting her vouchers without prior approval from the court.

Derick Waller contributed to this report.

Copyright 2014 WNCN. All rights reserved.

Brandon Herring

Brandon is a North Carolina native and UNC alum who lives in Fayetteville, and covers Cumberland County and the Sandhills. Returning to North Carolina to work as a journalist is a dream come true for Brandon. More>>

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