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Harassment Claims Roil Habitat for Humanity

As Founder's Supporters Rally, New Allegations Emerge

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2005; Page A01

AMERICUS, Ga. -- Since Habitat for Humanity fired its founder and president, Millard Fuller, for sexual harassment six weeks ago, his supporters throughout the giant nonprofit housing organization have campaigned to reinstate him.

Calling the accusation unsubstantiated and the punishment excessive, Fuller's allies have created a Web site and an online petition signed by more than 3,600 donors and volunteers who work in many of Habitat for Humanity's 2,300 independent affiliates around the world. They have conducted weekly prayer vigils in Americus, organized symbolic work stoppages at Habitat construction sites and urged major contributors to withhold gifts.

Millard Fuller, right, talks to Jim Ervin of the Lions Club and former president Jimmy Carter -- a high-profile supporter of the charity Fuller founded. (Erik S. Lesser -- Lions Club Via AP)

Millard Fuller

Jan. 3, 1935: Born in Lanett, Ala.

1957: Graduated from Auburn University in Alabama.

1959: Married Linda Caldwell.

1960: Received law degree from University of Alabama and passed Alabama bar (in 1972, he passed the Georgia bar). Served briefly in the Army.

1960: Co-founder of Fuller and Dees Marketing Group Inc. in Montgomery, Ala.

1960-65: Partner in Fuller and Dees law firm in Montgomery.

1966-68: Development director of Tougaloo College in Mississippi.

1968-72: Director of Koinonia Partners Inc. Developed business operations for Koinonia Christian community in Americus, Ga.

1973-76: Became Church of Christ's director of development in Zaire. Initiated housing project for low-income families in Mbandaka, Zaire.

1976-2005: Founder and president of Habitat for Humanity International.

1996: Awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton.

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Yesterday, Habitat's international board of directors unanimously reaffirmed Fuller's dismissal at the beginning of a three-day meeting in Cape Town, South Africa. Despite that vote, supporters said they will continue to push for Fuller's rehiring.

But the outpouring of sympathy for Fuller, 70, has also had a reverse effect. After years of silence, several former employees and close associates of Fuller -- including three ordained ministers -- have come forward to say they have inside knowledge of numerous prior allegations of sexual misconduct and workplace harassment by him, beginning before he founded Habitat for Humanity here in 1976.

The seven-member executive committee of Habitat for Humanity's board of directors removed Fuller as president on Jan. 31 after an accusation that he inappropriately touched and made suggestive comments to a female employee during a ride to the Atlanta airport in 2003. The committee also fired his wife, Linda Fuller, who had helped him run the organization for 29 years.

The question posed by Fuller's defenders is how an organization that describes itself as a Christian ministry could dishonor a man who gave away a personal fortune and built a movement to help low-income families buy decent homes.

The question posed by his accusers is how an organization devoted to the dignity of all people could, for many years, hush up allegations that its leader was demeaning women on his staff.

The controversy threatens not only to sully the reputation of one of the nation's most prominent charities but also to embroil its most famous volunteer, former president Jimmy Carter, who lives nine miles west of here in Plains, Ga.

Carter declined through a spokeswoman to comment on the allegations. But according to the Fullers and Habitat board members, the former president tried twice in the past year to broker an agreement to keep the latest accusation quiet and allow Fuller to retire honorably with his $79,000 annual salary for life.

Carter also rose to Fuller's defense on the only previous occasion when sexual harassment charges against him became public. In 1990-91, five women who were current or former employees of Habitat told the board of directors that he had subjected them to unwanted sexual advances -- including kissing them on the mouth and touching their buttocks -- as well as vindictive behavior when he was rebuffed.

Board members said they came close to firing Fuller. But they said that after Carter warned in a confidential letter that a "national scandal" could ensue, the directors allowed Fuller to work for a year from an outside office and then restored his duties as chief executive.

In the March 26, 1990, letter, Carter said he himself was given to physical displays of affection and appreciation, such as kisses on the cheek and hugs, to women he knew professionally and socially that were sometimes not welcomed. He wrote that he shook hands with several men and hugged and kissed several women at the dedication of the John F. Kennedy Library in 1979 and that the late president's widow had "visibly flinched" at his actions.

"Without minimizing in any way the significance of what has happened at Habitat, let me say quite frankly that I have had some similar kinds of relationships with some of my own female employees and associates. If one ever complained officially, there could be an avalanche of similar charges," Carter wrote in the letter, which Millard Fuller provided to The Washington Post.

John Wieland, a Georgia developer who has built 26 houses for Habitat for Humanity and donated more than $500,000 to the organization, was on the board in 1990-91. "Our conclusion was that Millard was a hugger and was misinterpreted, and some people went out of their way to make something big out of something that wasn't really that big," he said.

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