Lawmakers urge mayor to address lead judgments

Letter to Rawlings-Blake says housing authority should pay poisoned public housing tenants

April 07, 2011|By Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

Three state lawmakers from Baltimore are calling on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to find a way for the city's housing authority to pay nearly $12 million in lead-poisoning judgments against it, disputing her claim that "it is not possible" to pay and suggesting the agency could borrow the money if necessary.

In a stern letter to the mayor, the legislators criticize the Housing Authority of Baltimore City for using "frivolous and delaying legal tactics" to avoid paying the judgments — even in cases where the authority agreed to the amount. Since 2005, the HABC has paid lawyers $3.8 million to fight the claims.

"Many of these victims will endure life-long disabilities due to the negligence of HABC, an entity that is not above the law and is legally obliged to comply with court orders," said the letter signed by Sen. Lisa Gladden, Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks and Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, all Democrats.

The letter was faxed on Wednesday to Rawlings-Blake, a fellow Democrat. Late Thursday afternoon, Rosenberg said he had not heard back from the mayor.

In a separate statement, Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat, called it "unconscionable, unjust and completely unacceptable" for the mayor and Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano to insist the housing authority cannot pay. As the country's fifth-largest public housing authority, it has an annual budget of around $300 million.

Rawlings-Blake declined to comment on the letter, said her spokesman, Ryan O'Doherty. Graziano also declined to comment, according to a spokeswoman. The housing authority is an independent entity under state law whose board of commissioners is appointed by the mayor.

The Baltimore Sun reported Sunday that the housing authority is refusing to pay nine judgments in cases where public housing tenants were found to have been poisoned as far back as the early 1990s. Even small amounts of lead can cause permanent brain damage in children who ingest lead chips or lead dust, resulting in learning and behavioral problems.

Graziano, who became housing commissioner in 2000 and serves as executive director of the housing authority, suggested in an interview last week that the HABC might consider paying the $12 million if that were the full extent of the authority's obligations. But he said that 175 more lead paint claims are pending in the courts, carrying a potential price tag of more than $800 million.

On Monday, Rawlings-Blake echoed her housing commissioner, saying "it is not possible" to pay the present claims, given how much more it could be forced to pay in the future.

In their letter, the three lawmakers did not address future claims, focusing instead on judgments already decided by juries or cases where the housing authority agreed to the dollar amount.

The legislators took aim at Graziano's comment last week that every dollar spent on lead poisoning judgments would be "one less dollar available for major capital needs."

"Every dollar spent on frivolous and delaying legal tactics," the lawmakers wrote, "is also one less dollar available for the capital and operating budget needs of HABC. Clearly HABC needs to get its priorities straight."

The letter is short on specifics about how the authority could pay the judgments. Asked to elaborate, Rosenberg said in an email to The Sun that he hopes Rawlings-Blake will consider "all viable options." "Floating a bond or agreeing to a structured settlement are some of those options," he said. Graziano has said the authority lacks resources to float bonds.

The letter suggests that the housing authority could have better prepared for its potential lead liability over the past 15 years if it had kept up its insurance coverage.

The lawmakers note that "the maintenance of insurance is legally required" for the housing authority. Yet the agency let its lead liability coverage lapse in the mid-1990s. Then it opted against self-insuring, even after being "reminded of its obligations" by a Court of Special Appeals decision in 2002.

Graziano said last week that the authority lacks the money to self-insure, and he said it cannot find coverage for lead liability. "HARRG does not sell lead liability insurance to anybody I'm aware of," Graziano said, referring to a unit of the Housing Authority Insurance Group. "Nor can we find it from other insurance companies."

But Housing Authority Insurance does provide lead liability coverage for 42 of the 848 public housing authorities it insures nationwide, said spokesman Bill Lewellyn. Nine of those 42 are large agencies, like the Baltimore authority.

In a statement released earlier this week Graziano said the housing authority "is deeply sympathetic to anyone who has suffered from lead paint poisoning."

"The recently discussed cases were filed in the past few years; however, they involve incidents that occurred prior to the implementation of Maryland's lead law in 1996," he said. "HABC has been fully compliant since its inception."

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