The owner of hundreds of rental units scattered across 18 residential properties in Elizabeth who last year agreed to pay $4.5 million in monetary damages and a civil penalty to resolve a Fair Housing Act (FHA) lawsuit was indicted Thursday for committing sexual offenses against 30 tenants over at least 15 years.
Union County Prosecutor William A. Daniel said the 42-count indictment charges Joseph Centanni, 75, of Mountainside with 23 charges of second-degree sexual assault and 19 citations of fourth-degree criminal sexual contact.
A long-term investigation by the Elizabeth Police Department and the Prosecutor’s Office’s Special Victims Unit, revealed that Centanni targeted people who were homeless, about to be evicted, or otherwise struggling financially, according to Assistant Prosecutor Caroline Lawlor, who is prosecuting the case.
The alleged crimes took place at various times from 2013 to 2020, with male and female victims ranging in age from 22 to 61, said Lawlor, who is the Special Victims Unit supervisor.
Centanni allegedly solicited the sex acts from his victims as a quid pro quo, agreeing to offer them rent reductions, a delay in an eviction, or other forms of financial assistance in exchange.
Centanni focused his harassment on women and gay or bisexual men who were awarded monetary damages under the federal consent decree Centanni agreed to last year, in which he was represented by Raymond S. Londa of Elizabeth and Joseph A. Hayden, Jr..
The defendant also purportedly threatened tenants who hesitated or refused his advances with eviction or other retaliatory measures.
The ongoing investigation into Centanni’s activities has been led by Special Victims Unit Detective Joanne Son, and assisted by Elizabeth Police Department Detective Louis Demondo, Special Agent Khela Vazquez of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Civil Rights Division of the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey.
Convictions on second-degree crimes are commonly punishable by terms of 5 to 10 years in state prison on each count and those for fourth-degree crimes by up to 18 months in prison.
Centanni remains free on court-ordered pretrial monitoring pending the outcome of his case.
The $4.5 million settlement, which was approved by the United States District Court last year, is the largest monetary settlement the federal Department of Justice ever obtained in a case alleging sexual harassment in housing.