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Graziano: Sun account of Housing Authority legal costs misleading, unfair

As the executive director of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, I'd like to correct misleading statements contained in a recent article ("Housing authority racks up legal bills," Sept. 18). The article gives the impression that HABC has spent $4 million in legal fees merely to avoid paying $12 million in court-ordered judgments in 10 cases. That is simply not true. These funds were spent to defend the agency in hundreds of cases. In 2009 alone, our defense saved HABC more than $100 million in unfounded claims.

While recognizing that this is a very difficult situation and restating my sympathy for the families impacted by lead, payment of hundreds of million of dollars in lead claims would make it impossible to serve the approximately 25,000 low-income families, seniors and persons with disabilities who rely on the agency for housing.

HABC is currently faced with approximately 185 claims valued at more than $800 million with at least six more years during which claims may be filed. If the current judgments totaling $12 million represented the limits of the HABC's exposure, the situation could be handled very differently. HABC is working diligently with its federal partners to resolve these cases in a fair and equitable way. HABC is not a city agency and its subsidies to operate the public housing and voucher programs are provided entirely from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Unfortunately, there are no provisions for obtaining additional funds to pay judgments or any other unfunded needs. HABC must have specific approval from HUD to reach resolution on these cases.

The reporter quoted sources condemning HABC for "enriching" lawyers who were not based in Baltimore and suggested that HABC had not considered the cost-effectiveness of bringing the defense in-house. However, he ignores HABC's statement that the agency had previously considered all options for its legal defense and determined that the cost required to defend the agency with internal staff far exceeded the amount HABC is paying outside counsel. The sheer volume and magnitude of cases justifies our choice and need for outside legal defense counsel. The reporter buried the fact that federal regulations prohibit HABC from imposing geographic preference restrictions in soliciting services. HABC told the reporter that four law firms submitted proposals for the defense litigation. The one Baltimore based firm that submitted a proposal had no relevant experience and charged $80 to $120 more per hour.

Further, the article mischaracterizes the information on the legal invoices as "basic," while stating that HABC redacted "many details" from the records we provided. HABC explained to the reporter that the information was properly redacted because it was privileged and confidential by law. The reporter's failure to mention the reason for the redaction underscored the lack of responsible journalism that was so evident throughout this article.

In closing, I want to assure the public that my entire team and I are working every day to resolve this extremely complicated situation.

Paul T. Graziano, Baltimore

The writer is executive director of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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