City of Atlanta out to ‘destroy’ HIV housing agency, lawsuit claims

The executive director of an HIV housing agency claims in a new lawsuit that a City of Atlanta official – who was later fired – retaliated against him after he spurned the man’s sexual advances.

Attorneys for Living Room filed the suit against the city and Karen Carter (second photo), head of the city’s grants management office, in Fulton Superior Court on Monday.

It’s an explosive turn in a dispute between the city and Living Room that’s led to over 70 people living with HIV to face evictions. And it’s another chapter in the years-long struggle with the city’s management of the federally-funded Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS program (HOPWA). 

Living Room claimed in the lawsuit that the city had “flagrant breaches” in its HOPWA program.

“While Living Room has substantially performed its obligations under the agreement, the city has wrongfully withheld contractual payments and otherwise interfered with Living Room’s operations to such a degree that Living Room’s performance of its contractual obligations has become impossible,” the lawsuit said. 

“Hanging in the balance are the fates of over 200 of the most vulnerable Atlantans – individuals with HIV/AIDS who are now receiving eviction notices because the city’s breaches have made it impossible for Living Room to continue to serve these vulnerable residents,” the lawsuit continued.

The city is retaliating against Living Room and its executive director, Jerome Brooks, for Brooks recommending that the city outsource the functions performed by the Office of Human Services, according to the lawsuit. The suit also claimed Living Room is being retaliated against because Brooks rejected “the romantic and sexual overtures” of Preston Brant (top photo), the former director of the Office of Human Services.

Living Room is seeking unspecified compensatory damages against the city, reimbursement of HOPWA funds owed under their contract, a permanent injunction prohibiting the city of breaching the HOPWA contract and attorneys’ fees and expenses.

 

‘Secret retaliation’ against Living Room

 

The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development provides HOPWA grants to the City of Atlanta, which is then supposed to distribute the money to nonprofits with HOPWA programs in 29 counties in the metro area. Those groups use the money to pay rent and other services for people living with HIV.

The city has been “chronically late” in making those payments to Living Room, which has a contract with the city that accounts for 90 percent of its annual revenue, according to the lawsuit. But since 2014, the city has failed to distribute $40 million in HOPWA funds, Project Q reported on Monday.

Brooks suggested to the office of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in September 2018 that the city outsource the functions of the Office of Human Services.

“This recommendation was met with immediate opposition from the Office of Human Services and the Office of Grants Management,” the lawsuit said. “The Office of Human Services Director, Mr. Brant, began telling other service providers and community members that Living Room was attempting to take their jobs.”

Brooks claimed he offered to collaborate with Brant on improving the HOPWA program management. That’s when Brant’s “unwelcome advances” started, according to the suit. Brant allegedly asked Brooks out to dinner and a movie on Jan. 19. 

“Initially, Mr. Brooks reluctantly agreed to go on the date, but he became increasingly concerned that doing so would create the appearance of a conflict of interest,” the lawsuit said. “He had one of their mutual acquaintances offer to join them for dinner and the movie, at which point Mr. Brant became enraged.”

“The date was called off. Mr. Brant then began an unlawful campaign of secretly retaliating against Mr. Brooks and Living Room because Mr. Brooks had spurned his advances,” the lawsuit continued.

 

Living Room report leaked to media

 

The lawsuit claimed that Brant leaked an internal report about the group to a local media outlet.

The city conducted on-site monitoring of Living Room in February and delivered its final report to the group in March, according to the lawsuit. 

“The city delivered its monitoring report to Living Room on March 28, 2019, but Living Room learned of its existence the day before when a CBS46 reporter asked Mr. Brooks to comment on specific items in the report that had yet to be shared with Living Room,” the lawsuit said.

CBS46 ran the story on April 1, “causing an immediate uproar,” the lawsuit said. Living Room failed to protect the confidentiality of its clients, failed to ensure housing met quality standards, failed to verify each client was living with HIV and there were several financial irregularities, according to the story. A data breach, which Living Room claimed that Brant made up, is also referenced.

An unnamed city spokesperson told CBS46 that Living Room’s “mismanagement is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

“Atlanta’s HOPWA clients deserve better than this, and the city reserves the right to take any and all action necessary to ensure those clients receive the quality care and opportunities they require,” the city said.

The city also told CBS46 it was within its right to refuse the execution of contracts with Living Room until the issues were resolved. 

Brooks (third photo right) confronted Brant about leaking the report to the media.

“Mr. Brant’s response proved to be prophetic — he promised to ruin the reputations of Living Room and Mr. Brooks if they questioned his actions again,” the lawsuit said.

Secret recordings and a firing

 

Living Room claimed to have received recordings of Brant in May from a man once employed by a contractor that did business with the group.

“On these recordings, Mr. Brant could be heard to encourage Mr. Griffin to: (i) publicly release the protected health information of Living Room clients through one of Mr. Brant’s media contacts; and (ii) find people willing to go on television to falsely state that their personal information had, in fact, been compromised and that Living Room had never informed them of the data breach,” the lawsuit said.

“Additionally, Mr. Brant can be heard on the recording to say that the media attention around the data breach was meant only to be a distraction because his real plan was to destroy Mr. Brooks’ career and the Living Room’s business through the onsite monitoring that he would oversee,” the lawsuit continued.

Brooks filed an ethics complaint against Brant, which included copies of the recordings. The city fired Brant in late May, according to the lawsuit. Bottoms appointed Brant and Carter to their jobs in July 2018.

But Living Room claimed the retaliation against them continued under Carter. She allegedly sent a response to Living Room on June 10, more than two months after the group responded to the city with corrective actions to the issues found in the monitoring report. Carter’s letter said the issues “remain open and unresolved” and Carter refused to meet with Living Room about it, according to the lawsuit.

Living Room claimed the city withheld some $485,000 in HOPWA payments, leading the group to furlough some employees and suspend some services, according to the lawsuit. Carter allegedly told Living Room the furloughs were a breach of the HOPWA contract, which the city then terminated on July 3. 

Living Room attorney Matt Maguire declined to comment on the lawsuit. A City of Atlanta spokesperson did not respond to Project Q’s request for comment. A phone number for Brant was out of service on Monday and he did not respond to a LinkedIn message from Project Q about the case. 

Problems with the city's HOPWA program go back years, issues chronicled by Project Q in August 2018. That's when housing advocates called the city's HOPWA grants management "a mess." City officials hoped at the time to address the issues to avoid the problems when the city's new fiscal year opened this summer.

The dispute between City of Atlanta and Living Room broke out into the open in June. Numerous advocates for people living with HIV said the city’s HOPWA program is in “crisis” at a special session of an Atlanta City Council subcommittee on June 27.

Atlanta City Councilmember Antonio Brown, the council’s sole LGBTQ member, is leading a new task force to address the HOPWA crisis. Some $1.5 million in emergency aid for eight HOPWA agencies is under consideration by the council, but it wouldn’t get final approval until August at the earliest.

Over 90 HIV activists, doctors and researchers issued a letter to Bottoms on July 15 expressing a “total loss of faith and confidence” in the City of Atlanta's ability to manage the HOPWA program. They called for the city to reimburse HOPWA agencies “immediately” for funds the agencies spent to house HOPWA clients, and to transfer the management of the HOPWA program from the Office of Grants Management to the city’s Continuum of Care department.