Prosecutors in Baltimore are investigating allegations that three maintenance men working for the city's public housing authority refused to perform basic repairs for female residents unless they had sex with them.
The Baltimore state's attorney's office announced the probe Wednesday.
"Due to the seriousness of the allegations our office is conducting an investigation to determine whether criminal charges should be brought," said spokeswoman Rochelle Ritchie in a statement.
The statement did not elaborate on how the office will conduct its investigation.
In a lawsuit against the city's housing authority, attorneys for 11 women, including four new plaintiffs announced Tuesday, say they were denied basic and necessary repairs in public housing units because they refused to have sex with handymen. For instance, the lawsuit said one woman slept next to the oven because a handyman wouldn't fix her heat without sexual favors in return.
The suit includes accounts by women who alleged they had been victimized by handymen whose neglect resulted in squalid conditions including leaks, insect infestations and dangerous mold growth. Some of the alleged abuses date back to 2008, according to the suit.
Additionally, the suit alleges that the housing authority actively thwarted an investigation conducted by the local chapter of the municipal employees union that resulted in a recommendation that the handymen in question be fired.
Baltimore Housing Authority spokeswoman Tania Baker said Tuesday that the agency is aware of the allegations and continues to conduct an internal investigation.
Young activists who staged a sit-in at City Hall last week over demands for police reforms and other changes in the city had urged authorities to fire the city housing commissioner, Paul Graziano, over the matter. The group had made reference to the lawsuit by the women in a list of demands presented to city officials.
Cary Hansel, an attorney representing the women, said Wednesday that he has met with Graziano and said the parties have "opened a dialogue."
"Our goal is always the fastest path to justice. Very often that's outside of court, but if we don't get a satisfactory result outside of court we'll go to court," Hansel said. "We're happy the housing authority is at least talking to us and our clients, we are happy that the state's attorney's office is looking into matters and we are pleased that our clients have not seen these gentlemen in public housing since these issues became public."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Graziano will not be fired as a result of the probe. She added that Graziano, the housing authority and others in charge of the city take the investigation seriously.
"It's not something that's being swept under the rug," Rawlings-Blake said, "and just as the state's attorney is interested in getting to the bottom of it so is Paul Graziano and so am I."
In her statement, Baker said Graziano was aware of the abuse allegations and finds them "extremely disturbing." She said the housing authority takes the safety and well-being of its residents very seriously but could not discuss the ongoing investigation in detail.
There are roughly 20,000 residents living in approximately 11,000 units of public housing in Baltimore, according to the city's website.