Baltimore City Council members push housing authority on paying lead poisoning judgments

Kraft says 'you're just lying' by refusing to pay $200,000 agreed to in settlement

May 31, 2011|By Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

The chairman of a City Council committee told Baltimore's housing authority Tuesday to take immediate steps toward paying a former public housing resident who suffered lead poisoning — just one in a looming tidal wave of legal claims that the authority warns could eventually total hundreds of millions of dollars.

"You're just lying to them," Councilman James B. Kraft said to housing authority chief Paul T. Graziano after hearing how the authority has refused to pay a $200,000 settlement it reached with Daron Goods.

Calling the authority's behavior "entirely unacceptable," Kraft said he expected Graziano's agency to notify federal housing officials within a week that it wants to pay Goods.

A second member of the council committee wants the housing authority to go further by satisfying the bulk of nearly $12 million in lead poisoning judgments against it. Councilwoman Belinda Conaway says the authority should seek federal approval to pay all but a handful of judgments still on appeal.

The authority's refusal to pay the judgments was the subject of an emotional and at times contentious public hearing at City Hall. Policy debate mixed with personal stories, as people stepped up to the microphone to describe the debilitating toll lead poisoning has taken on them or their children.

"We're the ones hurting; it's not fair," said a tearful Brittany McCutcheon, 20, who won a $2.2 million jury award that was later reduced to $1.32 million because of a state cap on non-economic damages. The housing authority has appealed her award.

Baltimore's housing authority, the nation's fifth-largest with a budget of $300 million, has maintained that it cannot afford to pay victims who were poisoned by lead in public housing, even when it has entered into settlements in court. Graziano says the vast majority of the authority's assets are federal and therefore beyond the reach of plaintiffs.

And even if the authority could pay the existing judgments, Graziano says, it could never hope to afford more than $800 million in pending claims that are winding through the courts.

Though the City Council lacks legal power over the housing authority, an independent entity created under state law, Conaway called Tuesday's hearing to demand an explanation of its no-pay stance. Graziano also serves as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's housing commissioner. Both jobs paid him a combined salary last year of $202,900.

Graziano insisted Tuesday that the housing authority is not "callously disregarding" the $12 million in judgments, eight of them from lead paint cases and one stemming from mold. But he said the housing authority lacks the means to pay, as well as the approval of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

If the authority paid all claims against it and those in the pipeline, it would not have enough money left to fulfill its core function of providing affordable housing to low-income residents, he said.

"HABC is looking at any and all viable options," he said, "to address these judgments and claims without risking the displacement" of the 25,000 city households currently living in public housing and subsidized rentals. He did not offer details, though, and said he was constrained because of a legal fight in federal court over whether the authority's assets are federal property.

The unpaid lead poisoning judgments were documented in a Baltimore Sun article in April, and the issue has since taken on a political dimension. Sen. Catherine E. Pugh, believed to be considering a run for mayor later this year, sponsored an amendment to the state capital budget directing the housing authority to say how it would address the judgments.

The amendment was dropped, but Rawlings-Blake promised state lawmakers she would work on the issue. "I will ensure that HABC and HUD share a plan for appropriate resolution to the outstanding judgments and pending claims related to lead paint litigation," she said in an April 9 letter to leaders of the capital budget committee.

At Tuesday's hearing, Graziano emphasized the authority's strides in preventing lead-based paint poisoning, an achievement lauded by advocates for lead-safe housing. The authority has been in compliance with a 1996 state law aimed at safeguarding children, Graziano said. The lead exposure in current cases occurred, or allegedly occurred, 15 or 20 years ago.

Even small amounts of lead can cause impairment that stunts a child's learning and contributes to behavior problems. Lead-based paint, once widely found in houses across the nation, was banned in Baltimore in 1950, but much of the city's housing stock was built before the ban.

scott.calvert@baltsun.com

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