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N.J. landlord charged with ‘coercing’ greater than a dozen tenants into intercourse acts in trade for housing

An Elizabeth landlord who was sued by federal authorities last year for demanding sexual favors from tenants was arrested Friday morning on multiple criminal charges “for allegedly forcing more than a dozen of his tenants to commit sexual acts Get Financial Aid, “NJ Advance The Media Has Learned.

Joseph Centanni, 73, of Mountainside, was charged by the Union County Prosecutor’s office on eight second-degree sexual assaults, a number of attempted second-degree sexual assaults, and 14 charges of fourth-degree criminal sexual contact between 2016 and 2020. the prosecutor said.

His arrest came after the Justice Department filed a lawsuit in August alleging Centanni violated the Fair Housing Act, which protects tenants from sexual harassment and retaliation by landlords for allegedly serving years of sexual favors in exchange for housing had requested.

According to police reports NJ Advance Media received last year as part of an Open Public Records Request (OPRA), four alleged victims had previously reported to Elizabeth Police Department that Centanni sexually assaulted them. One woman alleged Centanni was sexually assaulted after she lost her job amid the coronavirus pandemic and struggled to pay her rent, according to a police report.

Centanni has not yet been prosecuted.

The Union County Prosecutor’s allegations are similar to the DOJ and other victims’ allegations that Centanni used its position as a powerful landlord to persecute tenants who were in a difficult financial situation.

According to prosecutors, Centanni targeted male and female renters who were homeless, about to be evicted, or otherwise faced with financial problems. He described the sexual acts he requested of the victims as “consideration” and offered them rent cuts, a delay in eviction or other forms of financial assistance if they complied with his demands, authorities said.

The victims said they “felt they had no choice but to give in to Centanni’s demands,” prosecutors said. Some tenants did so to provide shelter for their young children, authorities said.

“Using a position of power and privilege to pursue the vulnerability and despair of others is not only wrong – in this case it is also criminal,” Union County Attorney Lyndsay V. Ruotolo said in a statement.

The sexual abuse allegedly took place in washrooms, storage rooms or boiler rooms in his Elizabeth homes – or in a model unit to be shown to potential tenants, prosecutors said.

Centanni’s attorney Raymond Londa said he was unaware of the arrest when he was contacted on Friday. He said his client would make a pleading not guilty.

His lawyers have previously denied the DOJ’s allegations.

“He categorically denies any allegations of sexual harassment or other misconduct and intends to fight the allegations in court before a jury of his colleagues,” the lawyers said in a statement in November.

Centanni has owned apartment buildings in New Jersey’s fourth largest city since at least the early 1990s.

Authorities said he was actively involved in operating 18 residential properties – hundreds of units total – in and around Elizabeth, while raising more than $ 100,000 a month from a federal housing program used by low-income tenants.

In their lawsuit, federal authorities accused Centanni of allegedly “soliciting” sexual favors to obtain housing, exposing his genitals to potential or current tenants, offering housing benefits such as reduced rent or apology for late rent in exchange for oral sex, and initiating eviction or threats against tenants who “objected to or disapproved of his sexual advances”.

The lawsuit is still ongoing, but court documents indicate that the parties have held talks with a view to possibly settling the case. A US attorney general did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Centanni’s arrest.

In an incident described in the federal complaint in 2019, a tenant told Centanni that she was having difficulty finding another apartment.

“How much do you want your apartment?” he asked the tenant, according to the complaint, before taking her to an empty storage room, where he allegedly exposed himself and asked for oral sex.

“Because she felt she had no choice, the tenant submitted to Centanni’s sexual demand,” the complaint said. “After this incident, Centanni allowed her to stay in her apartment.”

Centanni is also the subject of a separate civil lawsuit filed in the Supreme State Court in August.

The woman claims Centanni “forced” her “to have non-consensual oral sex (Centanni)” on at least 11 different occasions while she was in financial distress and “in dire need of shelter,” the lawsuit said.

The case is still ongoing.

Centanni is being held in Union County Jail until his first appearance and hearing. Prosecutors said they intended to detain Centanni pending the outcome of his case.

Prosecutors said it was “believed there may be other Centanni victims who have not yet come forward,” and urged anyone with information about Centanni’s activities to contact Detective Son of the at 908-477-1698 To contact the public prosecutor of the district of Union.

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Joe Atmonavage can be reached at jatmonavage@njadvancemedia.com.

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