Baltimore landlord jailed over lead paint violations

Judge orders owner held until units fixed or tenants relocated

December 17, 2010|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

A Baltimore landlord has been jailed by a city Circuit Court judge for failing after years of pressure to fix lead-paint poisoning hazards in all of his rental units, state officials said Thursday.

Cephus Murrell, whose address is listed in court records as the 600 block of Laurel Hill Lane in Catonsville, was ordered jailed for contempt of court by Judge W. Michel Pierson until the landlord remedies lead-paint risks in all of his units or relocates the tenants to safe housing at his expense. The judge acted at a hearing Wednesday in which state officials said the landlord had not fully complied with the judge's previous order to fix all his units or face jail.

Murrell, who was ordered to report to jail Thursday morning, did not return phone calls. His lawyer could not be reached for comment.

The jailing, only the second time a landlord has been incarcerated for violating the state's lead paint poisoning law, came after years of enforcement actions by the state, including repeated citations and at least $30,000 in fines, said Horacio A. Tablada, land management director for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Murrell was first cited by the state around 2004 for failing to reduce lead poisoning risks in nearly 70 rental units owned by him or by a corporation he controlled, Tablada said. He agreed to fix them up under a consent order, but the state eventually went to court after he failed to do everything required, the state official said.

The landlord and a consulting business in his name paid a $20,000 fine in 2007 and agreed to bring 52 properties into compliance with the state lead paint law, the state agency reported at the time. Murrell paid another $10,000 penalty that year after state inspectors found workers supposedly fixing one of his units failing to take required precautions to protect tenants and themselves from lead dust.

Last year, the state petitioned the court to hold Murrell in contempt for not complying with the latest consent decree requiring him to fix his units. Pierson found him in contempt in June, ordered him to relocate tenants in eight untreated units and to pay the state $100,000. After more hearings, the judge in October ordered Murrell jailed, but stayed the order if Murrell finished fixing the units and allowed tenants to live rent-free until January, or relocate them.

At the Wednesday hearing, Tablada said, state officials reported that Murrell had not obtained certificates verifying that three of the units had received treatment to reduce lead paint risks, including cleaning them and covering door jambs and window sashes to prevent lead dust exposure.

"There's peeling, chipping, flaking paint on the properties," Tablada said, adding that Murrell was jailed because "he has basically dragged his feet coming into compliance."

Tablada said Murrell once was accredited by the state to do lead paint renovations himself, but approval was revoked after inspectors found problems with his work.

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