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Harassment Claims Roil Habitat for Humanity

Clashes Over Expansion

In a four-hour interview at his home here, with his wife at his side, Fuller said he believes that the recent sexual harassment charge is false and was merely the pretext for his firing. He said that the real reason was tension with the 31-member board over his drive to expand Habitat's operations.

"There are 190 countries in the world. We're in 100, and I want to go into the other 90," he said. "The board doesn't want to expand. They want to retrench."

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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If the board does not rehire him, Fuller said, he will create an organization to raise money for Habitat projects, circumventing the international headquarters and dealing directly with local affiliates.

Board Chairman Rey Ramsey, a Washington lawyer, acknowledged that Habitat's directors had clashed with Fuller over budgets and expansion plans. But he said those disagreements were healthy. The firing, he said, resulted from recurring allegations of sexual harassment, as well as from efforts by both of the Fullers to disparage alleged victims, intimidate staff members and pressure the board into ignoring the charges. The Fullers denied disparaging or intimidating anyone and said the board was angry with them for trying to defend themselves.

Millard Fuller "has left a great legacy for Habitat, but he is not a victim of anything. He is the product of his own deeds," Ramsey said.

Once a Millionaire

Fuller has told of his founding of Habitat for Humanity in several books, and it is legendary throughout the organization, which has grown from having a handful of volunteers in 1976 to an organization with a $200 million annual budget and 550 workers at the Americus headquarters.

While in law school at the University of Alabama in 1957, Fuller and a classmate began a direct-mail business, selling cookbooks and candy to high school chapters of the Future Homemakers of America, which resold them at a profit. By the mid-1960s he was a millionaire with two homes, a Lincoln Continental, and thousands of acres of pasture for his cattle and riding horses.

When the Fullers' marriage began to falter, however, they sold their share in the business, gave away their fortune and moved to a Christian communal farm in Americus called Koinonia, the Greek word for fellowship. It was there that the idea of helping the poor to build homes with sweat equity and no-interest loans was born.

Two of Koinonia's former leaders say there is another side that has never been told. Al Zook, now a massage therapist in Denver, and Christopher Bugbee, now a communications consultant in Los Angeles, said Fuller engaged in two extramarital affairs at the farm. Bugbee also said a female volunteer accused Fuller of unwanted sexual advances.

"The discovery that his private conduct was at such odds with his public preaching . . . destroyed the trust between Millard and the rest of the Koinonia leadership and led to the mutual recognition . . . that the community and the Fullers must separate," Bugbee said.

Asked whether that account was true, Fuller said he had made "mistakes" at Koinonia but denied that they had anything to do with the founding of Habitat for Humanity. "I left Koinonia because I was unhappy with the leadership structure and was just restless," he said.

Zook said the farm's leaders quietly brought in Christian counselors from Reba Place Fellowship, a Mennonite group that specializes in reconciliation, to help Fuller. Two decades later, Habitat for Humanity also called on Reba Place for discreet counseling when the five women made their allegations in 1990-91, according to the Rev. David Rowe, who was then Habitat's director of operations.

Rowe, who is now minister of Greenfield Hill Congregational Church in Fairfield, Conn., said that for a time, Linda Fuller was furious at her husband. "I was present at counseling sessions where she confronted Millard on what he had done and what that did to her," he said. "But then sometime after that . . . she just decided that her fate, her future, her family just required her not only to stand by her man but to back and fight for Millard. And I never understood at the time, nor now, what it was that changed that."

Linda Fuller, who worked for years alongside her husband with little pay and no job title, said she always considered the 1990-91 accusations to be overblown. In the end, Habitat gave some of the women generous compensation packages when they resigned. None sued, and none has spoken out publicly with her name attached, until now.

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