I'm willing to bet these asshats voted Trump.
Neighbors question nonprofit’s assistance of sex offender Robert Washington's home
By TOM DINKI and DANIELLE GAMBLE, Olean Times Herald Oct 1, 2017 Updated Oct 1, 2017
OLEAN — Along Fountain Street, tall trees and manicured lawns are graced with flowers, trimmed hedges and American flags. And, in the yard next to convicted sex offender Robert Washington’s house, two lawn signs together read “Sexually molest a child and you get your home remodeled for free!”
The signs highlight not only a simmering feud between Washington and several of his neighbors, documented in several Olean Police Department reports over the last two years, but also a debate the neighbors would like to have: Should nonprofit assistance funds for the impoverished be used to help those with a criminal history of sexual abuse?
Neighbors of Washington are voicing concerns that the home shared by the former Olean High School special education teacher and his elderly mother received apparent repairs and remodeling services this summer from local nonprofit organizations that use government funds.
Washington, 38, was charged in June of 2016 with having sexual contact with a 13-year-old male student during non-school sanctioned tutoring sessions at both Washington’s 361 Fountain St. home and the victim’s home. He was fired by the Olean City School District shortly after.
Neighbors are questioning why taxpayer-funded programs were allowed to benefit Washington, who is currently serving a six-month sentence in Cattaraugus County Jail for a third-degree criminal sex act, a class E felony, and set be released in December.
“He’s sitting in jail for molesting a child and he’s going to come home to a brand new, remodeled house that the taxpayers paid for,” said Barbara Whiteman of 371 Fountain St., in whose yard the signs about free remodeling were posted. “Does that sound right to you?”
Washington’s Buffalo-based attorney Frank Housh said Washington is entitled to all rights except those forfeited as part of his sentencing, and that the neighbors’ argument is “not legitimate.”
“They don’t get to decide who gets the benefits of being a citizen in the United States and in the city of Olean,” Housh said. “The mob doesn’t get to decide which funds are available and which ones aren’t.”
When contacted by phone Friday, Washington’s 74-year-old mother, Helen Washington, said she received home improvements from local organizations, but that it was nobody else’s “business” what those improvements were and how much they cost.
“I was a single parent and I worked hard,” she said. “I didn’t have the extra cash to put into my home and these people have offered to do it.”
The nonprofits in question — Cattaraugus Community Action, Inc. and Chautauqua Opportunities, Inc. — both declined to say whether they provided any free or reduced-cost services to the Washingtons through their various housing improvement programs, citing confidentiality reasons. However, they added that eligibility requirements are set by various state and federal guidelines, not by the individual organizations.
Fountain Street residents say if that’s the case, state and federal guidelines need to be changed.
“Maybe there are rules (the nonprofits) have to follow and they couldn’t say no,” said Carrie Peters of 360 Fountain St., who lives directly across from the Washingtons, “but if that’s the case, our legislators need to know that this is not OK. It is not OK to spend our money on people like this.”
The collection of neighbors who reached out to the Olean Times Herald with their concerns include Whiteman, Peters, Todd and Janice Randall and Matthew Sage. In a group interview Aug. 30, they reported witnessing the Washingtons’ home receive several visits from vehicles with Cattaraugus Community Action and Chautauqua Opportunities insignias, and subsequent repairs that began in mid-August and wrapped up about a week and a half ago. They said those repairs appeared to include new windows, subflooring and installation, and that a new hot water tank was delivered to the home.
Both organizations provide home repair, as well as energy-saving and weatherization renovations to low-income people. Josiah Lamp, director of housing and community development for Chautauqua Opportunities, based in Dunkirk, said the organization tries to coordinate with Cattaraugus Community Action “as much as possible” to provide housing services in Cattaraugus County.
Both Lamp and Cattaraugus Community Action CEO Tina Zerbian declined to say if and what services the Washingtons received.
“All services that our agency provides to anyone in the community are held in confidence,” Zerbian said in an email.
Nonprofit agencies — even those that use government funds — are not subject to Freedom of Information Law or Freedom of Information Act requests.
Helen Washington said she applied for improvements, not her son, and they were for her benefit, not her son’s. Housh noted Helen Washington has not committed any crime and is entitled to whatever funds are legally made available to her, private or public.
However, both Washington and his mother are listed as owners of the property on Cattaraugus County Office of Real Property data and the city of Olean’s 2017 assessment roll. Officials with the city Assessor’s Office said, according to their records, Washington is the remainder of the property’s trust, meaning he will own the home when his mother dies.
“It’s mind-boggling that he’s sitting in (jail) and their property value is (increasing), meanwhile we surround them and our property value is (declining),” said Todd Randall of 341 Fountain St., whose property borders the Washingtons’.
“We’ll never be able to sell our house,” added his wife, Janice Randall.
Their concerns are valid, according to a study published by the American Economic Review in 2008. The study states houses within one-tenth mile of a sex offender’s home drop 4 percent in property value, while houses directly next to an offender’s home sell for about 12 percent less.
Washington was rated as a Level 2 sex offender during a Sex Offender Registration Act hearing last month, meaning his name and complete residence address are available on the state’s public registry.
Changing the policy
The county’s Community Action agency is a subsidiary of New York State Community Action Association. The state association’s website describes these agencies as “federally designated … frontline resource(s) for people living in poverty.”
Eligibility criteria for assistance programs are sometimes based solely on household income and are established on a case-by-case basis by the organization’s various funders, Zerbian said. Those funders include the Cattaraugus County, New York state and federal governments, as well as private entities.
For example, Cattaraugus Community Action received a $750,000 grant earlier this year from the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal to expand its weatherization and energy conservation program.
“We cannot withhold services from eligible clients based upon whether we, or anyone else, deems the client worthy above and beyond the eligibility criteria,” Zerbian stated. “ … Our mission is one of an anti-poverty organization. As such, we do not specifically outreach to persons with criminal backgrounds, nor do we typically deny services based solely upon a criminal record, although there are exceptions.”
Lamp gave a similar explanation in an interview Friday.
“Everything would need to be done in accordance to the law or specific regulations of a particular program,” he said.
Housh said if Washington’s neighbors take issue with the home receiving services, they should “seek remedy in the law.”
Todd Randall said he and his neighbors have reached out to local lawmakers, but many of them have not reached back. He believes some are “trying to bury this” because of the uncomfortable nature of the topic and because it could involve taking away resources from impoverished people.
“Regardless, it’s going to mean someone looks bad,” Randall said.
One of the lawmakers who did get back to them was a fellow Fountain Street resident, Cattaraugus County Legislator John Padlo, D-Olean.
Padlo said he spoke with Cattaraugus Community Action on behalf of his neighbors and was told the Washingtons qualified for the services they received; he said he has not heard of the Washingtons receiving services through Chautauqua Opportunities.
“Do I agree with it? No, I don’t, but if they fall in the criteria then they qualify for it,” he said. “I know what their point is: that there’s a convicted felon there. But Community Action’s point of view is those people qualify for it. They can’t discriminate.”
Padlo added that it’s his understanding the funds used to repair the Washingtons’ home came from the state and federal government, not Cattaraugus County. The majority of public funds received by Cattaraugus Community Action is from the state and federal government, said Padlo, adding the county sometimes acts as a “pass-through agency” for state and federal funds.
“Once we receive the money, we in turn pass the money through Community Action. Even then, the eligibility requirements can’t be changed or altered (by the county government),” he said. “Obviously, if it’s a law that can be done at county government, I’d certainly look into that.”
Neighbors said they are not against impoverished people receiving government assistance. They are concerned about the right people getting it.
“We don’t have anything against the volunteers for this community, the people who are working for it — it’s the rules on the process of the application and who they’re allowing to take this money,” Peters said.
A history of disputes
Helen Washington said she has lived in her home for over 50 years and never bothered anyone. She finds her neighbors’ issues with her home repairs “ridiculous.”
“I don’t think (my neighbors) should have their nose in my affair,” she said. “Every time I get company, or somebody is at the door, they run right out to see what’s going on.”
Olean police have responded to the Washingtons’ home for reports of neighbor disputes at least 10 times over the last two years, according to incident reports obtained by the Times Herald through a FOIL request.
The calls, made both by the Washingtons and against the Washingtons by their neighbors, mostly the Randalls, include complaints about loud music and plowing snow onto each other’s property. In two reports — one occurring just days after Washington’s arrest in June 2016 and the other a day before his sentencing in June of this year — neighbors allege Washington took cell phone pictures and video of them and their home. During the June 25 incident, Peters alleges Washington took pictures of her 5-year-old daughter playing in front of the house.
No one has been charged in any of the incidents.
Shortly after Washington’s arrest, neighbors who spoke with the Times Herald planted several signs on their own lawns that read “No excuse for child abuse” and “No pedophile zone.”
Neighbors said their signs are up not just to slam Washington.
“When (Washington was first arrested), we were more concerned that if someone were to take action into their own hands, are they going get the right house?” Peters said. “We were more concerned about our own safety.”
No incidents of vandalism to the Washingtons’ home have been reported, according to the police reports.
Housh considers the signs “harassment” and “vigilantism.”
Olean Police Chief Jeff Rowley said because the signs are not vulgar or threatening, they don’t break any laws.
“At least the signs that I saw, I really don’t have the authority to make them take them down or cover them up,” he said.
Housh said Olean police have failed to address neighbors’ alleged harassment of the Washingtons with the signs and ongoing neighborhood dispute. He said he has sent a letter about Olean police’s alleged lack of response to Rowley, Cattaraugus County Sheriff Timothy Whitcomb and New York State Police Superintendent George Beach, but heard nothing in response.
“At least according to my client, the Olean police are doing nothing, and by doing that they’re encouraging this kind of vigilante behavior,” Housh said.
Rowley said Olean police always respond when called by the Washingtons or their neighbors, and to say otherwise is inaccurate, noting he personally went to Fountain Street in the spring to listen to the Washingtons’ allegations.
Rowley said it’s difficult to press charges in neighbor dispute incidents, as offenses don’t necessarily warrant a charge, and often “something that may be annoying to you may not necessarily be illegal.”
“We’re just kind of hoping it resolves itself, and everybody grows up a little bit and leaves the other person alone,” he said.
Todd Randall said Housh’s accusations of vigilantism are an effort to deflect Washington’s guilt, adding that neighbors have never had a physical altercation with Washington.
With him being a softball coach at St. Bonaventure University, and his wife an owner of a Farmers Insurance agency, Todd Randall said he understands the public scrutiny that comes from pushing this issue and is not trying to be “inflammatory.”
He said his issue with the Washingtons was indeed the catalyst for his interest in this topic and “to pretend it didn’t start with them would be disingenuous.” But after several conversations with his neighbors, Randall said the concern among the neighbors expanded to a moral question.
“I keep thinking back to the victim,” said Peters, an OHS math teacher. “To see that the person who did this to you is sitting in jail but then getting all of these things done at their home — what are we teaching that child? That somebody can hurt him and then get free stuff?”
As far as the scope of what crimes should necessitate nonprofits to refuse services, Todd Randall has no answers, conceding that “everything is not black and white.”
“All I know is I’m looking next door and you’ve got the worst of the worst,” he said.
(Contact reporter Tom Dinki at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter, @tomdinki. Contact City Editor Danielle Gamble at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter, @OTHGamble.)