A Statesville public housing manager has left his job after accusations he sexually harassed tenants when he worked for another agency.
The Statesville Housing Authority and Montele Burton have “mutually agreed to separate,” Executive Director Darbah Skaf said Tuesday.
Burton’s departure comes after an Observer report on Sunday detailed allegations that he paid rent for tenants in exchange for sexual favors during his tenure at the Hickory Public Housing Authority.
Two women told the Observer they were struggling to pay their bills when Burton propositioned them. The single mothers said they consented to the arrangement because they feared eviction.
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They are among at least six tenants who have come forward and alleged they were sexually harassed by Burton or other Hickory public housing workers, according to Greensboro attorney Craig Hensel, who is planning to file a lawsuit.
Burton resigned from the Hickory agency in February while under investigation for an alleged inappropriate relationship with a female tenant. He joined the Statesville office in June as an assistant property manager.
On Tuesday, Burton strongly denied the sexual harassment allegations and said he would ultimately prove himself innocent.
But he said it was best he leave his job while the Hickory case remains unresolved.
“This is bringing too much attention to a high-performing agency,” Burton said. “I understand that. I understand the politics.”
Also Tuesday, new information emerged about Burton’s past.
In response to a November open records request from the Observer, the Monroe Housing Authority released records from Burton’s personnel file.
Documents show that Burton was fired in October 2011 after the agency investigated text messages he sent to a female tenant. In one instance, Burton asked the woman to meet him at a Waffle House restaurant, according to a termination letter. Another time, the letter says, he texted the woman greetings after midnight.
Burton denied sending the messages, the letter says, but the texts came from a phone number matching the one on his resume.
In an interview, Monroe Housing Authority Executive Director Anna McRae said the tenant complained the communication was inappropriate. McRae said she fired Burton because he had been on the job less than three months, meaning he had probationary employment status.
“He had no reason to contact a tenant after midnight,” McRae said. “I didn’t want any other problems. I didn’t want anything like that on my staff.”
Burton on Tuesday said Monroe officials must have misunderstood the intent of his messages. He said he was planning to meet the woman at the restaurant to help her prepare for a meeting with social workers. She had trouble paying her utilities and her boyfriend had physically threatened her, Burton said.
There were no romantic or sexual feelings involved, he said.
Still, the Monroe termination raises new questions about whether public housing offices conduct thorough background checks on prospective employees.
Burton, 45, has worked for six agencies in the Carolinas and Virginia, including the Charlotte Housing Authorities. Despite being placed on “do not rehire” lists after leaving Charlotte and Hickory, he continued to work in public housing.
McRae said no one called her office and asked about Burton’s tenure in Monroe before hiring him. Burton has had jobs in Charlotte, Hickory, Lynchburg, Va., and Statesville since leaving Monroe.
“I don’t know why the calls didn’t come,” McRae said. “I would not withhold information.”
Skaf, the Statesville executive director, acknowledged that her agency did not call Monroe, Charlotte or Hickory – three of Burton’s most recent employers. She said officials contacted two other agencies.
Statesville officials were unaware of sexual harassment allegations, Skaf said. Yet, she insists it was not a mistake to hire Burton.
“We followed our process, and I am comfortable with our policy,” Skaf said. “They are good practices.”
The more important issue, she said, is whether other public housing agencies properly protected tenants from sexual harassment.
“These other agencies dropped the ball,” Skaf said. “Why didn’t you stop him before he got here? Why did they just pass him around?”