State lawmaker: Graziano said in January deal was near for city housing authority to pay lead judgments

Delegate disappointed in lack of progress

March 15, 2012|By Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

By now, Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg says he expected big news from the Housing Authority of Baltimore City — that it had found a way to resolve the millions of dollars in court-ordered judgments it owes former public housing residents who suffered lead paint poisoning as children.

Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano told him in early January that the agency was "close to an agreement with the feds to work this thing out," Rosenberg recalled.

Based on Graziano's assurance, Rosenberg says, he held off pursuing a remedy in the legislature when the General Assembly's annual session began days later. But with the session winding to a close and no deal in sight, the vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee says he's been let down.

"I would have considered what options I had as a legislator, through the introduction of a bill, to try and move the issue forward — to have a positive impact," the Baltimore Democrat said. It would be "very difficult" to raise the issue now, given that the 90-day session is so far along, he added.

Nearly a year after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pledged to find a solution to the unpaid lead judgments — an issue that housing officials have said threatens to bankrupt the agency — Rosenberg isn't the only critic growing increasingly frustrated. Other legislators say they are losing patience. An attorney for plaintiffs who suffered lead poisoning says the housing authority is acting in bad faith.

Housing officials and the mayor's office insist that efforts to resolve the matter continue. But as time passes, the inability to do so is creating further problems. According to documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun, state officials effectively blocked a $1.65 million loan to the city for affordable housing over concerns that the money could be seized by lawyers trying to collect for clients in lead poisoning cases.

"This thing has been going on for a year," said Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat. "It's poor kids who are brain-damaged as a direct result of the Baltimore City Housing Authority's negligence. It's a year later and the kids are still suffering and nobody wants to help."

Graziano was unavailable for an interview Wednesday or Thursday. In a brief statement, he said he recalled meeting with Rosenberg to discuss legislation the delegate was considering. But Graziano's statement makes no mention of an imminent agreement with the federal government, merely that he expressed a "desire that a fair and equitable resolution be reached in partnership with [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] and our other federal partners."

Mayoral spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said efforts to address the court-ordered judgments are continuing and that the housing authority is "pursuing all viable options." O'Doherty did not provide details.

A spokeswoman for HUD, which largely funds the Baltimore housing authority's $300 million annual budget, said it is up to Graziano's agency to negotiate and agree upon settlements, which must then be approved by a federal housing lawyer in Philadelphia.

Scott Nevin, a private lawyer who represents plaintiffs in 23 pending lead-poisoning lawsuits filed against Baltimore's housing authority, said he approached Graziano's staff in January to initiate settlement talks. Authority lawyers expressed interest but said they would need federal approval, Nevin said, yet they would not tell him who in the U.S. government could give that approval.

"The housing authority is just dragging its feet and playing a shell game," Nevin said.

The lead paint judgments — a legacy of substandard public housing that exposed vulnerable children to highly toxic lead paint flakes and dust — have cast a shadow over the housing authority since a Baltimore Sun article nearly a year ago brought the issue to light.

Today the authority owes $8.7 million in court-ordered judgments. About 185 cases are pending in the courts, and Graziano says those could cost the agency $800 million, a figure dismissed by plaintiffs' lawyers as a gross exaggeration.

Graziano, who came to Baltimore in 2000, has pointed out that the cases date to the early 1990s, before passage of the state's 1994 lead paint risk reduction law. He has said that his agency has been "fully compliant" with that law.

A driving force behind the law was Rosenberg. In a letter to the mayor last April, he and two fellow legislators criticized the housing authority 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 authority has paid lawyers more than $4 million to fight such claims.

"Many of these victims will endure lifelong disabilities due to the negligence of HABC, an entity that is not above the law and is legally obliged to comply with court orders," the lawmakers wrote.

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