A federal court jury has found that a property management company and two people who worked for it in 2000 violated the civil rights of four Russian immigrants who say they were attempting to expose a bribery scheme that preyed on people in need of affordable housing.
To the plaintiffs, who were accused of extortion and arrested seven years ago, the finding in U.S. v. Bowen Property Management, a Portland company, meant much more than the $120,000 award for damages would suggest.
“It’s the kind of case that would make a person want to go to law school,” said Jeffry Finer, a Spokane attorney who represented two of the plaintiffs. “In my circle, it’s called an Atticus Finch case,” he said, evoking the personification of righteousness in Harper Lee’s novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The lawsuit, heard by Judge Edward Shea in U.S. District Court in Spokane, claimed that Russian immigrants Natalya Prach, Anatoliy Tsiribko, Andrey Samolovov and his brother, Ivan Kriger, were the victims of discrimination because of national origin.
The four say the fear of deportation led them to plead guilty in 2001 to misdemeanor crimes they did not commit. After their victory in federal civil court last week, Finer said he will seek to have their convictions vacated or, if appropriate, pardoned by the governor.
The Fair Housing Act claim was originally brought by the U.S. Justice Department on behalf of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which settled with the defendants in 2006.
The Spokane Housing Authority, which had been a defendant in the suit, settled in 2004.
Bowen Property Management ran Westfall Village Apartments, 3724 N. Cook, which provided low-income housing in partnership with the Spokane Housing Authority. Defendant Kerrey Lemons, a Bowen employee, managed the apartment building and chose its tenants.
In 1999, Prach, a tenant of the apartments, began to work for the property management company, translating for other Russian-speaking tenants. As Lemons’ assistant, Prach became aware that her boss was charging Russian immigrants an additional “fee” to place their names at the top of a waiting list for apartments, according to court records. This fee, which varied but was generally $100 a bedroom, was not passed along to the company.
Non-Russian applicants were not asked to pay the fee, court records state, and by 2000, the apartment complex was mostly occupied by Russian immigrant families. On May 30 of that year, Prach informed defendant John Ballas, general manager of operations for Bowen Property Management, that Lemons was taking money from Russian tenants in exchange for placement in apartments, according to court records.
Instead of firing Lemons, Ballas fired Prach on June 1, 2000. About a week later, he ordered her eviction, according to court records.
Lemons denied that she was engaged in a bribery scheme, and her Spokane attorney, Michael Parker, said it was unlikely the jurors believed that she was because they did not return a verdict that Lemons’ conduct was “malicious, oppressive or in reckless disregard” of the plaintiffs.
“If they thought that, I believe there would have been punitive damages,” Parker said.
Spokane attorney Aaron Naccarato, who represents Ballas and Bowen Property Management, did not return phone calls last week from a reporter seeking comment. Spokane attorney Eric Steven, who also represents Ballas and Bowen, said “we are considering an appeal,” but offered no further comment on the case.
In the summer of 2000, several Russian tenants filed complaints of housing discrimination with HUD. Prach also turned to the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance, a private nonprofit organization, for help.
Both HUD and the alliance investigated the immigrants’ complaints. In 2002, HUD determined that there was reasonable cause to believe that the immigrants were the victims of discrimination.
“Lemons knew they would be susceptible to paying bribes to gain access to publicly assisted housing,” said Florrie Brassier, former director of the Fair Housing Alliance. “When Natalya saw what was wrong and tried to stop it, the company retaliated and unfortunately law enforcement cooperated.”
Finer, who represented Prach and Tsiribko, said that when the Russian immigrants began to complain about the fees Lemons was soliciting from them and also ask for their money back, Lemons accused the four plaintiffs of threatening her in an attempt to extort money.
As a result of Lemons’ complaint, then-Spokane police Detective Richard Losh began an investigation. On or about the same day Prach was fired, Losh questioned the recent immigrants. He was accompanied by Nick Whitney, an agent of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
“It was the first time I ever dealt with Eastern European immigrants, and I asked him to assist me so he could give me a few pointers,” Losh said of Whitney’s participation.
Lemons had contacted her sister, Janelle Valov, who also worked for the INS, about her troubles with the Russians. According to Finer and other attorneys for the plaintiffs, Valov testified that she had spoken with Lemons and then with Whitney.
Because paying a bribe, like taking one, is a crime, few tenants were willing to admit to it.
Fearing deportation if they were convicted of a felony, the plaintiffs said, they pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct as a result of Losh’s investigation.
“I never spoke to any of them about deportation,” said Losh, who has since retired from the Police Department. He added that none of the plaintiffs would talk to him except Kriger.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the successor agency to the INS, refused to permit Whitney to testify in the civil suit about the conduct of his work as an INS investigator, plaintiffs’ attorneys said.
Among the plaintiffs most devastated by the arrest and subsequent conviction was Kriger, who had the least involvement in the case, having acted only as an interpreter for the other plaintiffs and tenants, according to his counsel, Christopher Berhow.
Berhow and co-counsel Jennifer Hendrickson are third-year law students working for the Gonzaga Center for Law and Justice clinical program under the supervision of Gonzaga University professors.
As the result of his arrest, Kriger went bankrupt. He lost his job with Spokane Public Schools as well as financing for his business, constructing homes in a new subdivision.
Though he was a naturalized citizen, Kriger said he pleaded guilty “because Losh said we would be deported to Russia.”
March 23, Kriger received the biggest portion of the award for damages, $80,000. Prach received a $30,000 award. Tsiribko and Samolovov each received $5,000.
Lemons was never charged with a crime, said Finer, who added that the statute of limitations has since passed.