The largest and oldest nationwide group advocating for the rights of blind people was sued Friday for allegedly failing to protect its students, including minors, from known sexual abusers employed by the organization in a culture the lawsuit claims enabled the abuse to continue for years.
The lawsuit against the National Federation of the Blind was filed by attorneys representing Alyssa Mendez, 20, who is legally blind and says she was repeatedly sexually assaulted when she was 16 by her instructor, Michael Ausbun, while attending a training program in 2018 at an NFB-affiliated center in Louisiana.
Ausbun was 22 years old at the time he is accused of first sexually assaulting Mendez. Ausbun denies the allegations, his lawyer told CNN.
The NFB, founded in 1940 and headquartered in Baltimore, consists of affiliates, chapters and divisions in all 50 states and coordinates “programs, services, and resources to defend the rights of blind Americans,” according to its website.
The lawsuit, filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court, is seeking damages from the NFB on four counts, including battery; negligence; negligent hiring, training, supervision and retention; and violation of requirements to report suspected abuse of a child under Maryland law.
In the lawsuit, Mendez said her mother told the NFB’s leadership about Ausbun sexually assaulting her daughter, but even afterward, the lawsuit alleges, the NFB “still failed to exact any punishment.”
The NFB has “long known that sexual predators worked within its organizations to take advantage of the blind,” the lawsuit claims. There had been three complaints about Ausbun before the NFB launched the investigation, the lawsuit contends.
The NFB declined to comment on the allegations in the lawsuit due to the pending litigation, Chris Danielsen, director of public relations, told CNN in a phone call Friday.
In December 2020, after Mendez and others shared their alleged stories of abuse publicly, the NFB’s president acknowledged “some” people had been “abused or violated” by an NFB member, “and/or made to feel like no one else was listening.”
After looking into the allegations against Ausbun, the organization suspended him in 2020 with the possibility of returning as a member after five years, the lawsuit says.
In June 2021, Ausbun was arrested for allegedly molesting a minor – Mendez – and was then indicted after Mendez testified before a grand jury in Ruston, Louisiana, according to her attorneys.
Eric Johnson, a lawyer representing Ausbun, said in a statement to CNN his client denies the allegations. Ausbun formally entered a plea of not guilty to the charges against him.
“Since the case is pending, Mr. Ausbun maintains his complete innocence of any and all allegations or charges made by the alleged victim,” Johnson told CNN in a phone call Friday, speaking about the allegations in the lawsuit against his client.
Lack of urgency, initially, lawsuit claims
After the NFB suspended Ausbun, Mendez said she was frustrated with what she perceived to be his light punishment, according to the lawsuit. Mendez decided in December 2020 to give a public account on social media detailing the sexual assault she says she suffered at the hands of Ausbun, which she says then prompted several others in the blind community to share similar experiences of misconduct while involved in NFB programs.
As more alleged victims came forward, NFB President Mark Riccobono released an “open letter of apology” for what he described as the organization’s failure “if a survivor was left feeling the situation went unaddressed.”
Hundreds of victims, survivors and witnesses of sexual misconduct in NFB programs, and their allies and supporters, signed an open letter demanding the organization take action to “reduce and eliminate the widespread instances” of abuse within NFB agencies. The open letter was published on the same day as Riccobono’s public apology letter, according to Mendez’s lawyers.
“I think that because it [the abuse] was happening for so long, it’s frustrating because it doesn’t really feel like anything has changed,” Mendez told CNN in an interview this week, referring to the time period after hundreds signed the open letter in December 2020, calling on the NFB to implement changes.
The NFB formed a special committee to investigate the claims in January 2021, which revealed in its final report on November 11, 2021, 84 complaints alleging sexual misconduct were submitted to NFB leadership between December 2020, and November 2021, the report states.
Mendez was groomed, stalked, suit says
In 2018, Mendez traveled to Ruston, Louisiana, from her home in Florida to undergo a two-month training program at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, which provided housing for her, the lawsuit says. The program aims to help blind individuals develop skills for everyday life, emphasizing a “positive attitude toward blindness,” according to the lawsuit.
On her first day as a trainee, Mendez was sexually assaulted by Ausbun, who was her orientation and mobility instructor, the lawsuit maintains, and who also served as the vice president of the NFB’s National Association of Blind Students division. In the following weeks, Ausbun shared personal details about his life with Mendez “in an effort to groom her and started hugging her and touching her shoulders and hair,” both in public and private, the lawsuit claims.
Several employees noticed what the lawsuit described as Ausbun’s “inappropriate behavior” and notified two members of the NFB’s leadership, including one person who provided photo evidence of him touching Mendez, the lawsuit says. The Louisiana Center for the Blind revoked Ausbun’s National Orientation and Mobility Certification, but did not punish him further, the lawsuit alleges; he was allowed him to continue attending NFB activities and events, it says.
The NFB runs the Louisiana Center for the Blind as one of its affiliate centers. CNN contacted the center for comment on the lawsuit but did not immediately receive a response.
The abuse allegedly continued even after Mendez completed the training program, the lawsuit says. According to allegations of the lawsuit, Mendez’s mother, Kimberly Banks, who was active in the NFB’s parents’ division, invited Ausbun to stay at the family’s home in Florida without knowing at the time he had allegedly had unwanted contact with her daughter.
While Ausbun stayed at their home, he continued to sexually assault Mendez, the lawsuit says.
Mendez’s brother saw Ausbun “try to kiss” her and told their mother, the lawsuit says. Mendez told CNN she informed Banks she was being sexually abused by Ausbun. Banks then “immediately” reported the abuse to NFB leadership, but officials did not take any steps to punish him, the lawsuit contends.
“It was really hard for her,” Mendez told CNN, speaking about her mother. “I really don’t think she knew what to do,” adding her mother trusted the NFB to properly handle Ausbun’s alleged misconduct.
But the following year in 2019, Ausbun attended a national convention in Las Vegas where he “stalked” Mendez and her friends, the lawsuit alleges.
In October 2019, Mendez personally reported her abuse to NFB leadership, which led to an investigation lasting eight months, she told CNN.
Riccobono informed Mendez Ausbun would be suspended from the NFB for five years, allowing him “to return to the organization should he meet certain, confidential guidelines,” the lawsuit claims. The president allegedly explained the NFB “decided that a light punishment was best,” because of Ausbun’s “marital status,” the lawsuit states, without further explanation.
That’s when Mendez decided she would share her story publicly, writing in a Facebook post on December 12, 2020: “I wanted to share what happened to me, in hopes that it could help others. I want to encourage other survivors to share their stories, and use their voices in whatever way they choose.”
The support Mendez received compelled her to report Ausbun’s abuse to the Ruston Police Department, which then launched a criminal investigation, the lawsuit says. In June 2021, Ausbun was arrested for molesting a minor and was then indicted on 18 counts of molestation of a minor, charging documents show.
NFB vows action
The lawsuit claims Pam Allen, vice president and chair of the board of NFB, as well as Riccobono, were aware of misconduct within the organization “for years,” but they continue to hold their leadership roles.
CNN posed several questions in its request for comment from the NFB, including whether Allen and Riccobono were aware of ongoing misconduct and what, if any, disciplinary action was taken against them. A spokesperson for the NFB said it declines to comment on the lawsuit. CNN also contacted Allen and Riccobono for comment on the allegations but has not received a response.
“Instead of properly dealing with abusers within NFB ranks, the offenders were moved around in the organization and sometimes moved up in the organization,” the lawsuit says.
In his open letter of apology in December 2020, Riccobono said the NFB was committed to addressing misconduct, including improving reporting incidents and bolstering training on handling misconduct and abuse.
“We deeply regret that over our eighty years we have not handled each situation appropriately or been able to heal the pain that such incidents create. We do not reject these feelings of pain. In fact, we want to find and establish better ways to hear them and continuously eliminate the actions that caused them,” Riccobono wrote.
In January 2021, Riccobono said the NFB was partnering with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network to create a mandatory training program on sexual violence and misconduct for all of its members. The same month, the president created a “survivor-led” task force to represent survivors and address and prevent misconduct at the NFB.
On January 6, 2021, the NFB board voted to create a special committee to oversee an internal investigation of the misconduct allegations. The committee released its final report in November 2021, emphasizing “the need for putting in place a mechanism for checking in on the safety of participants, particularly those who are younger,” it states.
Mendez said she is comforted by the overwhelming support she has received from others after sharing her story, and she hopes the lawsuit will encourage other victims of abuse to come forward.
“It was really nice not to feel so alone in this. And I think, hopefully, it helped other people to not feel so alone either,” she said.
Ausbun’s criminal case is pending and has not been set for trial yet, Johnson, his lawyer told CNN. His next court date is scheduled in February in Lincoln Parrish, Louisiana.