Little Italy rehab deal raises queries about political ties Housing chief admits mistakes were made but defends project

March 31, 1998|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,SUN STAFF

Late last year, city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III told a neophyte developer that he was "keenly interested" in seeing two Little Italy rowhouses rehabilitated. He pledged $250,000 in city funds for the project, which aides cited as a first in the ethnic enclave east of the Inner Harbor.

Despite the claims of uniqueness, the deal raises questions about whether political connections smooth the way for developers seeking money from Henson's agency and about the thoroughness of the department's work on such deals.


One of the two people Henson described as principals in the firm that received the $250,000 has been dead for eight years, while his purported signature shows up on at least two recent documents.

A man associated with both houses is an aide to Henson at the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, raising questions about whether his involvement violates conflict-of-interest provisions in the deal. The aide's wife has close political ties to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

The extended family that long owned both houses -- and still controls them through a new corporation -- has a recent history of filing for bankruptcy.

Henson aides allowed work to begin and more than half the money to be spent on the houses weeks before the deal was finalized and then ordered work halted because one house lacked proper zoning. The Zoning Board will hear an appeal of that decision today.

Henson acknowledged yesterday that mistakes were made, but he defended the project as being good for the city.

"We have assisted in taking two long-standing vacant buildings and removed them from the vacancy rolls in the heart of one of the city's most vibrant and historic districts, Little Italy," Henson stated in a letter to The Sun. "This seems like the type of project worthy of our time and effort."

The $250,000 was drawn from city bond funds and is paying for the rehabilitation of 227 S. High St. into four apartments and 906 Fawn St. into two apartments. Technically a loan, the money does not have to be repaid if low-to moderate-income tenants live in the apartments for 10 years.

The money was channeled through the city Department of Housing and Community Development to Pascal Rose Development LLC, a corporation formed in October by Rosa Aquia.

Aquia, 73, is the mother of Gia Blattermann, a Little Italy activist with close political ties to Schmoke. Blattermann served on the Zoning Board during the mayor's first two terms. Her husband is Albert J. Blattermann, an ombudsman for the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which Henson also heads.

The deal will transform two decaying houses long in the Aquia-Blattermann extended family into six freshly minted apartments. According to housing department projections, the rental income will be used to make monthly payments of nearly $1,000 on debt incurred by family members years before the deal was made.

"Those houses were in terrible shape," said Solomon Akwara, vice president of C&S Contractors Inc., which is doing the rehab work. One house had been cited repeatedly for housing code violations. The other, Akwara said, had so much termite damage that it "would have collapsed."

Both Blattermanns said they had nothing to do with the project.

"My fingers were not in it," insisted Gia Blattermann.

Added her husband: "I have nothing to do with that property."

Dead man's signature

Perhaps the most curious aspect of the deal is the appearance of Pascal Aquia and Pasquale Aquia on the records of the transaction. Pasquale Aquia, who was married to Rosa Aquia, died in 1989. Pascal Aquia, according to his daughter, is a version of his name.

In December, Henson told the Board of Estimates, a panel of top elected and appointed officials that approves city contracts and is controlled by Schmoke, that Pascal Aquia is a member of Pascal Rose Development LLC. When Henson formally offered the money to Pascal Rose Development, his letter included a place for the firm to signify its acceptance of the money. The acceptance includes the signatures of Rosa and Pascal Aquia.

And Pasquale Aquia's signature appears on a deed signed in February transferring one of the houses to Pascal Rose Development LLC.

Henson said yesterday that his agency was not aware at the time of the loan transaction that Pasquale Aquia was dead. He said Rosa Aquia had power of attorney for her late husband and managed his estate. "Did that power stop at the time of death?" he asked. "I do not know at this time."

Gia Blattermann had a ready explanation when shown the signatures: "She signs his name all the time. Mother has this thing; she keeps his name everywhere. She did this."

She said her mother, assisted by the contractor, is in charge of the project. "She's just been winging it. She can't afford a lawyer."

Gia Blattermann offered last week to arrange an interview with her mother. The next day, she said that wouldn't happen because Rosa Aquia wasn't feeling well after a medical checkup.

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