Housing staffers targeted by city Strict inspections spurred by revelations about slum properties

April 11, 1996|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Mary Gardner and her husband are not slum landlords. Their impeccably renovated three-story, red-brick apartment building on Park Avenue helps anchor a neighborhood that could rightly be called one of Baltimore's jewels.

But three weeks ago, city inspectors pored over their property at 834 Park Ave. and cited them for 20 violations of Baltimore's housing code -- including a small patch of peeling paint in the hall and a cracked sidewalk in their back yard.

The reason they received such intense scrutiny is that Ms. Gardner and her husband, Michael Savino, work for the city Department of Housing and Community Development. And Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III is on the warpath after revelations in The Sun that his agency failed to act for years against housing employees who own and operate slum rental houses in the city.

"He is doing exactly what the public has a right to expect under the circumstances," said Ms. Gardner, a 16-year city employee who makes $57,000 a year as a housing department lawyer. "He's cracking down on everybody, myself included. And I don't have any complaint with that. It's totally to be expected."

She and her husband repaired the deficiencies within days, said Robert Dengler, the city's chief of code inspections. But other employees have been less forthcoming, raising the possibility of prosecutions and discipline.

Housing officials have identified 36 employees who own properties in the city in addition to their homes and have targeted them for review by inspectors who are showing little lenience toward their peers, records show.

Fifteen employees -- ranging from an office clerk to a senior inspector -- have been issued 63 violation notices covering hundreds of deficiencies on their properties.

Two inspectors have been suspended without pay, and five face scofflaw charges in District Court on accusations that they failed to make repairs quickly once they were cited for violations. An additional 17 court cases are being prepared for prosecution. And Mr. Henson has said that the investigation is far from over.

"I've said since day one that I don't smile on this subject," Mr. Henson said last week. "It's our intent to maintain the highest possible standard for our employees, especially those employees who are charged with inspecting other people's properties. It's simply unacceptable that they would own substandard houses themselves."

'Public disrepute'

On March 21, inspector Norma G. Albert was summoned to court for failing to make repairs at a building she owns at 240 S. Broadway and was fined $1,000. Six days later, she received a letter notifying her that she was being suspended without pay for 30 days for having "brought the Department into public disrepute."

Mr. Henson said similar departmental discipline is likely against other housing officials as their cases clear the courts.

"For similar offenses and similar transgressions, employees can expect similar disciplinary action to be taken," Mr. Dengler said. "We want people to understand that the department considers this to be a very serious matter."

In the most closely watched case involving the department, Superintendent of Inspections Henry John "Jack" Reed III, who owns 19 substandard rental rowhouses in the city, is scheduled to appear in court April 30 on four counts of failing to make timely repairs.

Deputy Commissioner Harold R. Perry, who is in charge of the city's investigation, said last week that 14 additional court cases are being prepared against Mr. Reed, who is paid $46,000 a year to oversee inspections in the city.

Ethics code altered

Since The Sun's article Jan. 28 on Mr. Reed's real estate holdings, the city has launched its investigation and made sweeping changes in the housing department's ethics code. Mr. Reed immediately took two weeks' leave to repair his properties but was unable to stay ahead of a blizzard of violation notices, records show.

He has been hit with 34 citations covering more than 500 code violations, Mr. Perry said. The housing department relocated one of Mr. Reed's tenants, a 27-year-old woman and her young son, and other tenants abandoned their leases. Several of his houses are boarded up, and at least two are for sale as tax-delinquent properties.

In another closely watched case, Arthur D. Gray, the deputy housing authority ombudsman, is scheduled to appear in court Tuesday on two summonses he received after more than five years of avoiding prosecution involving blighted houses he has owned in the city.

Mr. Gray, an aide to Mr. Henson, is paid $51,300 a year to handle public housing complaints. He was removed from a job with the city's federally funded empowerment zone when The Sun disclosed that orders from city inspectors to remedy dangerous conditions at his properties had been ignored for years.

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