Shadow system benefits top aide of housing chief Code violations rerouted since '91 to headquarters

February 18, 1996|By Jim Haner and Scott Higham | Jim Haner and Scott Higham,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Eric Siegel and staff researchers Jean L. Packard and Susan Waters contributed to this article.

To city housing inspectors, Arthur D. Gray is a well-known landlord.

He is a scofflaw who ignores their orders to fix his property for months at a time. He dodges thousands of dollars in potential fines. And, with a phone call, he can make an inspector's life difficult.

But he is more than just a troublesome landlord. He is a top aide to Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III and is paid $51,300 a year by the very agency responsible for controlling blighted properties in Baltimore.

He has owned four rental properties in the city that have been cited repeatedly over the past five years for everything from rat infestation and flooding, to a collapsed roof and illegal electrical wiring.

All the while, he has benefited from a shadow system within Baltimore's housing department that allows city officials who own rundown properties to avoid making repairs and paying fines that are routinely levied on other landlords, according to interviews and sources.

"If such a system exists, it would be truly scandalous," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said last week. "I would have to take some fairly severe personnel action."

Mr. Gray said last week that he has never used his influence in the cases against him.

"I have never sought, nor would I ever, any kind of special treatment based on my position with the city of Baltimore," he said.

Usually, code violations are handled by neighborhood housing inspection offices. But since 1991, violations against housing officials have been sent directly to headquarters, where they have languished for months, according to agency records and interviews with three housing inspectors who asked not to be named for fear of losing their jobs.

These and other findings emerged last week in a review by The Sun of more than 500 pages of documents that show Mr. Gray and at least four of his colleagues were able to own or operate substandard properties while avoiding code enforcement action by their own agency.

The revelations come after more than a year of woes for the city's housing administrators.

Last week, the federal government ordered the Housing Authority of Baltimore City to return $654,959, asserting that the city squandered the money on a $25.6 million no-bid housing repair program. Six people involved in the program have been convicted of federal bribery charges in a continuing grand jury investigation.

On Friday, Mr. Henson denied the existence of a shadow system that grants special treatment to anyone.

"I have to unequivocally state that cases involving our employees and elected officials are handled in the same manner as any property owner," he said.

Mr. Henson acknowledged he learned two years ago that Mr. Gray owned a rundown West Baltimore rowhouse that was the target of community complaints, but said, "I had bigger issues on my plate at the time."

As a result, Mr. Henson said, he took no disciplinary action against the chief of his multifamily dwelling and commercial lending division. The commissioner later moved Mr. Gray up the agency's chain of command to the post of deputy ombudsman for the Housing Authority.

Last year, Mr. Henson appointed him to work with companies and civic groups seeking a share of the $100 million pot of federal money in the city's empowerment zone. The project aims to revive some of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods.

All along, Mr. Gray was piling up past-due violation notices on four rental properties he owned -- while other landlords were routinely being fined as much as $500 per day for the same offenses.

'Conditions the same'

The three-story rowhouse at 2551 Madison Ave. in West Baltimore was a mess.

The year was 1990. The date, Nov. 28. A city code inspector pulled up to the property and found mounds of debris and garbage piled in front of a garage behind the house. Citation No. 412052 was issued within hours.

But the owner was no ordinary absentee landlord. His name was Arthur D. Gray, one of the highest-ranking managers in the city housing administration.

Over the next five years, city code inspectors returned 36 times to his Madison Avenue property -- citing him at least four more times for such violations as rat infestation, flooding, a caved-in garage roof and a buckled brick wall.

As they tried to get him to make repairs, tensions grew between the inspectors and Mr. Gray.

According to records obtained by The Sun, Mr. Gray failed to return the inspectors' phone calls, then had his city secretaries do it, then had his wife do it. They always had an excuse for why the repairs weren't being made: Mr. Gray was waiting on a home-improvement loan. Vandals were destroying his property. Construction would start soon.

"If you're going to be fair to me, you need to take into consideration the condition of that neighborhood," Mr. Gray said in an interview last week. "Every time a property owner makes repairs around there, the vandals tear it back down the next day. It's an impossible situation."

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