The Housing Authority of Baltimore City often cites a lack of funds to explain its refusal to pay nearly $12 million in court-ordered judgments to former public housing residents who suffered permanent lead-paint poisoning as children.
But the city's public housing agency has paid private lawyers about $4 million since 2005 to defend against those lead-paint claims. In May and June alone it spent $228,000 on legal fees, a total that works out to more than $5,000 per day, including expenses.
Housing authority officials say the legal fees are necessary to provide it with vigorous representation in court, noting that the amount of pending lead-paint claims against the city — $800 million — is enough to bankrupt the agency. "Every dollar we spend on judgments is one less dollar that is available for major capital needs," Executive Director Paul T. Graziano said earlier this year.
The legal costs have incensed some critics, however, who say the victims of lead-paint poisoning should be paid and that every dollar spent on lawyers is less compensation for them. The billing details also provide fresh evidence that the lawsuits are likely to remain a costly issue for the housing authority for years to come. In addition to the legal jousting about existing judgments, there are 185 more cases pending in Baltimore City Circuit Court.
"I don't know how Graziano sleeps at night," said state Sen. James Brochin, a Towson Democrat who last month called on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to take steps to have the judgments paid. He called it "pretty shameful" for the authority to enrich lawyers while taking all available legal measures to avoid compensating victims of lead poisoning.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has joined the housing authority in the fight to block payment of the judgments, approved the authority's use of federal funds to cover legal fees, a spokeswoman said. One argument the Housing Authority has made in refusing to pay the lead-paint judgments is that federal money cannot be spent to compensate victims.
Civil litigation experts say it may be more economical for the authority to bring its legal work in-house, because salaried staff lawyers often earn less than private attorneys. The city government, which is separate from the housing authority, uses its own lawyers to defend against most liability suits.
Housing Authority spokeswoman Cheron Porter said in a statement that contracting out legal work is "the most cost efficient and effective" way for the agency to defend itself. She said three law firms were selected through a formal evaluation process based on their expertise and track record.
The high volume of lead-paint lawsuits is a legacy of the lead-poisoning scourge that has come to light in recent decades in Baltimore and across the United States. If ingested, even small amounts of lead dust or flaking lead paint can cause brain damage that stunts a child's learning and contributes to behavior problems.
While the housing authority stresses that it has made great strides in making public housing lead-safe for children, individuals who were poisoned as far back as the early 1990s are now seeking compensation from the agency, which has not maintained insurance or set aside money during Graziano's 11-year tenure to cover such costs.
The law firm that accounted for the bulk of the Housing Authority's billings was a Towson-based firm led by J. Marks Moore III. Moore has considerable experience with lead-paint cases. He has represented Baltimore's housing authority for more than 15 years and has helped lead its efforts to avoid paying the judgments.
Porter said in her statement that the housing authority has assigned 190 cases to Moore over the past eight years. Of those, 90 have been resolved, she said, with the authority prevailing 93 percent of the time. She added that a preliminary analysis of cases from 2009 showed that Moore successfully defended against more than $100 million in claims.
Moore's firm submitted one charge for $1,025 marked "miscellaneous." On June 2, Circuit Judge Althea M. Handy imposed a $1,025 sanction against Moore's firm. The judge took the action after concluding that a deposition was unusable because a housing authority employee testified to matters about which he lacked direct knowledge, according to opposing counsel Scott Nevin, who was present for the private hearing. A message left at the judge's chambers was not returned.
The judge's public order stated that Moore's firm, not the housing authority, "shall pay" the fine to cover Nevin's time and the cost of the deposition.
"He did pay, and it was on his firm's check," Nevin said. "Clearly the order was against Mr. Moore and not the defendant."
Maxwell O. Chibundu, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School, said he did not think the housing authority should be billed for such an expense.
"The system doesn't allow people to evade punishment for wrongful conduct by making someone else pay," he said. "It undermines the whole point of the rule."
Porter, while not saying what the miscellaneous charge was for, called it an "error" that Moore "independently found." Porter also said it was an error for Moore's firm to bill $1,302 to prepare for, travel to and attend a hearing on June 2.