Woman says lawsuit irked U.S.

Housing investigators visit traveler suing over strip-searches

May 04, 2000|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

A week after charging in a lawsuit that she was improperly strip-searched by customs agents at Baltimore-Washington Inter- national Airport after returning from Jamaica, a Woodlawn woman was visited at home by investigators for two other federal agencies and summoned by Baltimore County to a review of her eligibility for a federal rental housing subsidy.

During the visit last week by investigators for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, Minnie R. Colclough said she was questioned about how she could afford to make three trips to the Caribbean while she was receiving a Section 8 housing subsidy.

Colclough said the visit by investigators and eligibility review are payback for the federal lawsuit she filed.

"This is a retaliation thing. I never had no problem before," said Colclough, who has received a Section 8 housing subsidy for five years and says her Jamaica trips were paid for by a friend she declined to identify. Colclough said she previously worked as a telemarketer but has been unemployed for the past year while recovering from a broken leg suffered while stepping off a curb.

"When [the HUD investigator] was leaving, he said to me, `Your Section 8 will be terminated. I'm going to see that the management puts you out,' " she said.

Federal and local officials say it is not unusual that investigations and reviews of Section 8 recipients are triggered by reports of spending that might seem excessive but deny their actions were retribution for Colclough's lawsuit.

Maureen Robinson, spokeswoman for Baltimore County's Department of Social Services, which administers the county's Section 8 program through its housing office, said it is "a responsible thing to do to look into" such reports.

But she added, "There's too much normal stuff to do to engage in" retaliation.

The housing office of Robinson's agency sent Colclough a letter summoning her to a meeting tomorrow. It makes no mention of her trips, referring to a "failure to comply" with federal "family obligations" -- a broad category that ranges from income disclosure to fraud to involvement in drug-related criminal activities.

Colclough, 38, and another woman filed suit April 17 against the federal government in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, alleging they were improperly singled out for strip searches because they are black women.

Their suit, which seeks $6 million in damages, is one of dozens pending around the country making similar allegations. It followed a report by the investigative arm of Congress that found that African-American women returning from international trips were ordered by agents for the U.S. Customs Service to remove their clothes or have their belongings X-rayed far more often than other passengers, even though they were less likely to be smuggling drugs.

Colclough claimed in her suit and an interview the day the suit was filed that she was improperly detained and strip-searched by customs agents at BWI Airport when she returned from Jamaica in November 1998 and in January and March 1999.

On April 25 -- a week after newspaper and television accounts of her suit -- Colclough received an unannounced visit at the two-bedroom Woodlawn apartment she shares with her 19-year-old daughter by agents for HUD's Office of the Inspector General and the postal inspection service. Two days later, she received the letter from Baltimore County summoning her to a meeting tomorrow to review her Section 8 status.

Colclough said the agents posed as housing inspectors there to conduct a required annual Section 8 survey of the condition of the property. Once inside, she said they began asking her about her trips to Jamaica.

" `You're going on vacation three times a year. We're giving you public assistance. How the hell can you do that?' " she quoted one inspector as saying.

The inspectors seized a tape from her answering machine before leaving, she said.

"They devastated me," she said.

Michael Zerega, spokesman for HUD's Office of the Inspector General in Washington, said his agency sent an investigator at the request of Baltimore County officials but declined further comment on the visit.

"The rule of the Office of the Inspector General is that we don't discuss matters under investigation," he said.

The postal inspection service investigator was working in the area with the HUD agent on an unrelated case when he was asked to accompany the HUD agent on a visit to Colclough's apartment, said Thomas E. Boyle, a postal spokesman.

"We have no interest in any matter this woman has with HUD and the customs service," said Boyle. "We just happened to be there."

Edward J. Connor, who filed Colclough's suit against the customs service, said it was inappropriate for federal investigators to question his client about her trips to Jamaica without notifying him first.

The Section 8 Rental Assistance Program is available to two-member households with an annual income limit of $24,200, according to Robinson, the Baltimore County social service spokeswoman. Depending on the amount of income, the subsidy for a two-bedroom unit can be as high as $450.

Robinson said she could not discuss Colclough's case specifically because of confidentiality. But she said meetings such as the one Colclough has been summoned to gives the housing office an opportunity to express its concerns and the Section 8 recipient a chance to respond.

Before any benefits were terminated, Colclough would have an opportunity to appeal and a hearing would be held.

"It's very much of a due process-oriented thing," Robinson said.

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