Former housing official cleared Judge dismisses last of 400 violations, says city targeted Reed

July 10, 1996|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

A District Court judge yesterday threw out the last of more than 400 housing code violations against Henry John "Jack" Reed III -- the city housing inspections chief who set off a furor when it was revealed in January that he owned more than a dozen substandard rental houses in Baltimore.

The ruling came four days after Reed, 55, took early retirement from his $46,000 per year city job as a superintendent of code enforcement.

Judge R. Scott Davis found that city officials violated Reed's rights as a property owner in their zeal to clean up a public relations calamity after The Sun revealed that the housing department permitted Reed and other employees to own blighted rental rowhouses for years.

Not only were Reed and other housing employees targeted for special inspections, the judge said, but Reed wasn't given enough time to make repairs before the city prosecuted him under new rules hastily adopted to crack down on civil servants who are landlords.

"The fact that he's a public employee should be a neutral factor in this case and it isn't," Davis told city prosecutors. "Everybody should be treated the same, and you're not treating Mr. Reed the same" as other private property owners.

The ruling casts a shadow over efforts by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III in the wake of the Reed case to tighten controls on other city workers, who own hundreds of rundown rental properties in Baltimore, records show.

Calling for civil servants to "hold themselves to a higher standard," the mayor recently required them to report their ownership in investment properties. The measure is being challenged by municipal employee unions fearful that it is the first step toward mandatory inspections -- after decades of no controls on their ownership of rental property.

Those concerns appear to be well-founded. Henson has put his department through a lengthy and sometimes painful disclosure process that has uncovered 43 housing workers who own 77 rental units citywide, said Robert Dengler, director of housing inspections.

To date, 81 deficiency notices have been issued and five housing workers have been prosecuted with mixed results. Including Reed, three had their cases dismissed or suspended and two received minor fines.

In addition to mandatory annual inspections, Henson's workers also have been given a shortened time frame within which to make repairs -- 15 days.

Other property owners face inspection only if a tenant complains, and they routinely are given 60 days or more to remedy deficiencies.

It was these provisions that Davis, a visiting judge from Salisbury, found so onerous for Reed.

"I don't think he [Reed] should be given any advantages, but dag gone it, I don't think his city employment should be a disadvantage either," Davis said. "And Mr. Reed is clearly at a disadvantage."

The case centered on a house Reed owns in the 1700 block of N. Bradford St., where a private inspector hired by The Sun found more than 20 deficiencies -- including a jerry-built heater exhaust pipe that relied on an open hole in the basement wall to carry carbon monoxide out of the house.

City inspectors testified yesterday that they ordered Reed on Feb. 2 to repair the vent within 24 hours because it represented a danger to his 27-year-old tenant and her 4-year-old son. But days, then weeks, went by before repairs were made.

"If it was a real tight house, it could have killed them," said Robert C. Robertson, a senior inspector.

But it was not "a real tight house" -- according to city inspection reports detailing leaky windows, cracked doors and a lack of weatherproofing throughout -- so inspectors decided not to evacuate the tenant and her child.

Further, Kenneth B. Mumaw, a master plumber hired by Reed to fix the exhaust pipe, testified that he was repeatedly denied access to the house by the tenant as the days ticked by and Reed called the housing department to request more time.

By that point, he was taking sick leave, dashing from one rental house to the next, struggling to keep up with a flurry of deficiency notices.

"The fact is that Mr. Reed performed a yeoman's effort in getting his properties repaired once these deficiencies were brought to his attention," said his attorney, Paul J. Weber.

Davis decided that the city had overreached in declaring the exhaust pipe an emergency and in holding Reed to a higher standard than other property owners. Based on that, prosecutors dropped another similar case against him. Another was continued indefinitely.

All of the other cases against Reed were resolved in informal hearings, Dengler said.

The net result is that he will pay no fines and faces no other penalties. "Even if we were inclined to take disciplinary action against him as an employee, he doesn't work for us anymore," Dengler said.

As for the broader impact of the judge's decision on the new city rules for workers, Assistant State's Attorney Peter Dwyer said that because District Court rulings have no precedent setting authority, the case will have no immediate impact.

"But, obviously, the housing commissioner and the mayor will have to take today into account in trying to figure out which way to go next with their policies in this area," he said. "This isn't the last time we're going to hear this argument."

Pub Date: 7/10/96

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