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Montijo Sues City Over His Dismissal : Former Housing Commission Chief Claims Civil Rights Violated

Times Staff Writer

A $10-million civil rights lawsuit against the city of San Diego, Mayor Maureen O’Connor and other city officials has been filed in federal court by Ben Montijo, alleging that he was wrongly fired two years ago as executive director of the San Diego Housing Commission.

Montijo, in the lawsuit filed Monday, claims he was the victim of racial discrimination, fraud, breach of contract and invasion of privacy in the days leading up to his dismissal from his $79,500-a-year job as head of the 130-employee agency.

Montijo’s attorney, Thomas Gill, said the action was filed in federal court in San Diego because of the alleged violations of civil rights.

Fired 2 Years Ago

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Montijo was fired two years ago this week when the San Diego City Council voted 6 to 0 to not renew his contract in the wake of controversy over how he had handled the renovation of a 122-unit apartment complex in Southeast San Diego under a federal housing rehabilitation program.

Montijo also had come under scrutiny after The Times disclosed that he failed to file federal income tax returns for 1979 and 1980, his first two years as the agency’s top administrator.

Montijo’s lawsuit alleged he was fired as a result of racial discrimination and claimed breach of contract and fraud on the grounds that he previously had been assured his job status was secure during the controversy. Commission members “knew his position was not secure and were then in the act of readying his termination,” Gill said.

The lawsuit also contends that city officials, including mayoral press secretary Paul Downey, invaded Montijo’s privacy by releasing Montijo’s income tax information without his permission.

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Downey on Tuesday denied that charge, contending instead that Montijo had specifically authorized the release of the tax documents “because he thought he would be vindicated by the information.”

The suit seeks $10 million in punitive damages and unspecified compensatory damages for “loss of reputation, loss of earnings, humiliation, mental anguish and emotional distress.”

Montijo later headed the Kansas City, Mo., Housing Authority, but resigned after a newspaper there reported that he was reimbursed $1,700 for travel expenses he never incurred.

Montijo has since returned to the San Diego area, Gill said.

The city and the individual defendants have 20 days to respond to the lawsuit. Larry Marshall, the attorney for the Housing Commission, said the lawsuit “will be vigorously defended.”


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