A Baltimore landlord with a history of violations of lead paint abatement laws agreed to plead guilty Tuesday to three misdemeanor violations of the Toxic Substances Control Act.

Cephus Murrell, who owns and manages 175 apartments in Baltimore, failed to notify tenants of potential hazards from lead paint, conducted abatement while children were on site and did not have a supervisor on site during the abatement, according to the office of the U.S. attorney for Maryland.


"Mr. Murrell repeatedly put children at risk," said U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein. "He repeatedly failed to comply with lead paint regulations, and he was clearly unwilling to comply."

At sentencing in U.S. District Court scheduled for November, the 68-year-old Catonsville man faces a maximum penalty of a year in prison for each charge and a fine of $100,000 or $25,000 for each day of violation. Rosenstein said prosecutors are seeking 18 months in prison, which would be a lengthy term for lead paint violations.

Murrell's lawyer, Paul Mark Sandler, said Murrell "acknowledges and accepts responsibility. At sentencing we look forward to presenting to the judge our view of how he should be sentenced."

Murrell has faced judges before. His properties were all built before 1978, when lead paint was banned because it was found to cause serious harm to children.

But state officials say he has repeatedly failed to comply with the laws to mitigate risk. City and state officials have issued more than 20 notices of violation and compliance orders against Murrell or his company, C. Murrell Business Consultants Inc. Maryland Department of Environment officials found at least one child with elevated lead blood levels living in his apartments.

Murrell has entered into several consent decrees to comply with lead requirements. And in an unusual move, a Baltimore circuit judge held him in contempt of court and briefly jailed him in December for dragging his feet on abatement.

Maryland environmental officials asked their federal counterparts for help, bringing in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. attorney for Maryland, in addition to the Maryland attorney general.

Rosenstein said an environmental crimes task force decides the best uses of federal dollars when prosecuting cases, including lead paint violations. Federal officials generally wait for states to bring cases to them, and said Murrell's intransigence got their attention.

As part of the plea agreement, reached before an indictment, Murrell will have to go back to all of his properties and re-do lead risk reduction work to ensure compliance with state laws, according to Dawn Stolzfus, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. She said state officials were unsure of the status of all his properties, but this will ensure compliance.

"This is a very serious issue," she said. "While Maryland has made great strides to reduce childhood lead poisoning, last year we still had about 500 children who tested positive for lead poisoning in our state, and lead poisoning is entirely preventable."

Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, said she knows of other cases in which federal officials have gotten involved in investigating lead paint cases nationally, though there haven't been many charges filed in Baltimore. She said that could be because of active enforcement by state officials and limited federal resources.

"This guy is a habitual offender," she said. "He got the attention of the EPA. … I hope this sends a message to owners that compliance is critical to protecting children."