Records sealed in slumlord court case

Defendant's lawyers sought gag order in wrongful eviction suit

May 25, 1999|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore Circuit Court judge sealed all court records yesterday in a $500,000 wrongful eviction lawsuit brought by two former tenants of George A. Dangerfield Jr., a 29-year-old convicted drug dealer who owns more than 125 rental houses in the city.

Judge Bonita J. Dancy issued a gag order requested by Dangerfield's lawyers, barring the parties from talking about the case in public. She then took the unusual step of sealing all court records, including tape recordings of yesterday's hearing.

Dangerfield's attorneys asked for a similar ruling last month in U.S. District Court, where he faces allegations that he was a central figure in a drug conspiracy that plowed its profits into slum real estate. But Judge Andre M. Davis denied their request, clearing the way for coverage of Dangerfield's trial next month.

Davis said at the time he would not consider closing a case that "is a matter of grave concern to the public," and called the press "the public's representatives."

The outcome was different in state court.

"I have no comment for you," Dancy said after the hearing. Yesterday afternoon, an attorney for The Sun challenged the order on grounds that it impedes the public's right to know about actions that take place in court.

Late yesterday, the judge granted The Sun a hearing Thursday morning to consider the newspaper's objections to her order.

Dancy's decision was another wrinkle in an unlikely saga that began in February, when the newspaper published an account of Dangerfield's rise from drug dealer to one of the most frequently prosecuted slum landlords in the city. This year alone, he has been summoned to housing court at least 10 times.

On Friday, prosecutors filed another case against him, saying he had leased a west-side rowhouse that housing inspectors had declared dangerously substandard to a woman and her three children

"We are not happy about it, to say the least," said Denise Duval, chief of the city's housing enforcement division. "He is already under a court order to make substantial repairs at that very address, which he hasn't done. It's not fit for human habitation -- and he knows it."

Dangerfield's case prompted state lawmakers to pass two bills making it easier for prosecutors to strip convicted criminals of their property. Dangerfield was convicted in 1995 for dealing cocaine.

One bill, which quadruples the fines that can be levied against a drug convict to $100,000, has been signed into law by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. The other bill, which would grant unprecedented power to the city to seize abandoned or vacant houses, is expected to be signed this week.

Dangerfield is among the largest owners of vacant houses in the city. Housing officials have been concerned for months about what to do with his real estate portfolio if he is convicted next month of drug conspiracy -- for which federal prosecutors have said they would seek a sentence of at least a decade in prison and $4 million in fines.

Former tenants Eric Holmes and Rosetta Bailey accused Dangerfield two years ago of hiring thugs who broke down the door of their Patterson Park Avenue home and forcibly evicted them after they complained about deficiencies in the building.

Dangerfield pleaded guilty to wrongful eviction in the case and paid a $500 fine, setting the stage for the lawsuit.

On Wednesday, in an 11th-hour attempt to block the case from going to trial, Dangerfield filed for protection in U.S. Bankruptcy Court -- only to be rejected in a sternly worded ruling by Judge E. Stephen Derby, who accused him of trying to use the court for "leverage."

Dangerfield's lawyer, Stephen H. Sacks, countered that his client was operating in good faith, adding that he had offered his former tenants a $50,000 settlement.

But Derby was little moved.

"A settlement is not a settlement until it occurs," he told Sacks.

Yesterday morning, with the case scheduled for a jury trial, Sacks appeared before Dancy and requested that the records in the case be sealed and further action in the case be postponed until next week.

Pub Date: 5/25/99

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