Justice News

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks at the Access to Justice for Survivors of Sexual Harassment, Assault and Misconduct Event
Washington, DC
United States
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Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Remarks as Prepared

I am delighted to welcome you to today’s program on Access to Justice for Survivors of Sexual Harassment, Assault and Misconduct. This is an especially timely and important topic as we honor both Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month and National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.

The fight to end sexual misconduct, including gender-based violence, is more important than ever. Nearly five years after the “Me Too” movement began, far too many people — and particularly women — still experience sexual misconduct in all facets of life. Combating sexual misconduct is a fundamental civil rights issue and government agencies must be part of an intersectional, holistic approach with victims, survivors and advocates to eliminate sexual misconduct, root and branch.

As you just heard from Deputy Attorney General Monaco, combating gender-based violence and misconduct is a top priority for us at the Justice Department, including here in the Civil Rights Division. Since its inception in 1957, the Civil Rights Division’s mission has been to uphold the civil and constitutional rights of everyone in the United States, particularly the most vulnerable members of our society. Redressing sexual misconduct — which includes sexual harassment, sexual assault and gender-based violence — is a core part of that mission. That is why it is essential that we continue to coordinate and strengthen our responses to these heinous acts.

Today, you will hear about the Civil Rights Division’s role in the fight to address sexual misconduct and our jurisdiction — both civil and criminal — over incidents of sexual misconduct, and the civil rights laws that we use to vindicate the rights of survivors and to hold perpetrators of criminal acts accountable.

To give you a sense of some of the impactful work that Civil Rights Division has done just in the last few months, oftentimes in partnership with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices around the country, I’d like to highlight a few examples of some recent cases involving sexual misconduct.

First, in the area of civil enforcement, the division partnered with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey to bring a Fair Housing Act lawsuit against a landlord who owned hundreds of rental units in New Jersey. The landlord, Joseph Centanni, sexually harassed and assaulted tenants and housing applicants for more than 15 years. Centanni demanded sexual favors, like oral sex, to get or keep housing; offered housing benefits, such as reduced rent in exchange for sexual favors; touched tenants and applicants in a way that was sexual and unwelcome; and made unwelcome sexual comments and advances to tenants and applicants. He also initiated or threatened to initiate eviction actions against tenants who refused his sexual advances. In December 2021, we reached a landmark settlement, requiring the landlord to pay $4.5 million in monetary damages and a civil penalty, making this the largest monetary settlement the Justice Department has ever obtained in a case alleging sexual harassment in housing.

In another case, the division again worked closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey on an investigation into the only women’s prison in the state. The investigation unfortunately revealed a pattern of failing to protect inmates from sexual abuse by staff. In August 2021, we entered into a proposed consent decree with the State of New Jersey, whereby the New Jersey Department of Corrections agreed to implement policies and practices to ensure that prisoners are protected from sexual abuse.

We have also addressed sexual misconduct in the education and employment contexts.

For example, the division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California conducted a Title IX investigation of San Jose State University regarding its failure — for more than a decade — to respond adequately to reports of sexual harassment and assault of female student-athletes by an athletic trainer, as well as related retaliation. In September 2021, we reached an agreement that will improve the university’s process for responding to complaints of sexual harassment and assault and ensure that the university has effective Title IX training and prevention policies. Notably, the agreement requires the university to pay $1.6 million to those students who were sexually harassed by the athletic trainer and who participated in the investigation. And prosecutors from the division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office have since brought criminal civil rights charges against the athletic trainer. That case is still pending.

The division partnered with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee in a Title VII lawsuit alleging that Cumberland County, Tennessee, failed to take adequate precautions to prevent the former director of the county’s solid waste department from sexually harassing nearly a dozen female employees. The sexual misconduct included unwanted sexual contact, kissing and groping, unwelcome sexual advances and offensive remarks about the employees’ bodies. In March 2021, we reached a settlement wherein the county agreed to provide $1.1 million in compensatory damages to the women, make revisions to the county’s policies and procedures, and provide mandatory training. The former director was also indicted on criminal charges.

The Civil Rights Division’s work also extends into the criminal enforcement arena. In addition to our human trafficking prosecutions, the division has witnessed sexual misconduct cases increase in the past decade. Specifically, we have brought criminal charges against road patrol officers, probation officers, corrections officers and prison medical personnel who have committed abuse ranging from groping to rape at gunpoint.

In one recent case, the division partnered with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to conduct a comprehensive investigation and trial involving Eric Scott Kindley, a private prison transport officer who sexually assaulted more than a dozen women whom he was entrusted to transport all over the country. The trial ended with guilty verdicts, and in October 2021, the defendant was sentenced to two life sentences plus five years. One of the women listed in the indictment testified that when Kindley transported her from Alabama to Arizona in 2017, he stopped his van in a deserted area near Little Rock purportedly to allow her to urinate. There, he sexually assaulted her while she was handcuffed, threatened her with a firearm and reminded her, as he did with other victims, that she was “an inmate in transport” and that no one would believe her if she reported what happened.

All of the perpetrators and entities in the civil and criminal cases I highlighted today illustrate the breadth of jurisdiction the Civil Rights Division has over sexual misconduct. You will hear more about some of these cases — and other ones — from attorneys across the division in today’s program.

I’m also pleased to announce today that the Civil Rights Division has created a Coordinating Committee to Combat Sexual Misconduct. This group will bring together staff from across the division who work to enforce the myriad of civil and criminal laws that prohibit sexual misconduct — including many of the people who you will hear from later today — and will be charged with developing effective strategies to enhance and strengthen our efforts to combat sexual misconduct in all its forms.

The Civil Rights Division’s enforcement work is just part of the holistic efforts needed to address and prevent sexual misconduct. The Justice Department also works to provide services to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and other forms of sexual misconduct. This is why I’m so pleased that we partnered with the Office on Violence Against Women for today’s program.

OVW is a critical partner in ensuring that survivors of sexual misconduct receive the social and economic support needed when these grievous acts occur. You’ll hear from my colleague and friend, OVW’s Principal Deputy Director Allison Randall, as well as representatives from other agencies committed to this work, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Of course, all of us in government know that we cannot and do not do this work alone. To be effective, we must partner and engage with impacted communities. And to that end, we are also honored to feature, as part of our conversation today, two extraordinary advocates — Fatima Goss Graves from the National Women’s Law Center and Condencia Brade from the National Organization of Sisters of Color Ending Sexual Assault. They will provide critical perspectives from their work with, and on behalf of, survivors.

We hope today’s program provides important information about efforts taking place within the Department of Justice and the federal government to address sexual misconduct, as well as the critical work that is being done by our partners in the advocacy community. We look forward to working with you to ensure that we continue delivering on our strong commitment to prevent and redress these terrible and tragic acts when they happen in our communities.

Today’s event marks the beginning of renewed efforts to combat sexual misconduct, and we look forward to working with you all on these efforts moving forward. Thank you again for joining us today.

Updated April 26, 2022