Sheriff takes first step to seize 20 city housing vehicles to pay lead judgment

The Baltimore sheriff's office began the process Wednesday of seizing 20 vehicles owned by the city's housing authority — part of a move by two siblings who suffered lead poisoning in public housing to force the agency to make good on $2.59 million in damages awarded by a jury.

Just after 9 a.m. at an East Baltimore lot, two members of the sheriff's office went truck by truck, verifying information and slapping each with a sticker that said, "A levy has been made on this property by the sheriff of Baltimore City."

The vehicles belong to the housing authority's construction management unit and in-house general contractor, known as HABCo. Those tagged range from a Bobcat to a 2011 Ford F-550 truck to the 2007 take-home Jeep Cherokee used by the unit's chief, Claude "Buzz" Wolfe.

While Wednesday's action was only the first step in the seizure process, and none of the vehicles were removed or taken out of service, housing officials say their loss would have a big impact on maintenance work, including the stabilization of vacant houses on the verge of collapse.

"It would pretty much shut us down," said HABCo supervisor Jeff Gardner. "We stabilize a lot of houses that are collapsed from inside out. We'll clean out all the garbage, put a new roof on it, board it up so it stays dry and doesn't do further damage to other properties."

Without the trucks, he said, "we basically wouldn't be able to get to the jobs because we need materials and whatnot hauled to the job."

As soon as the tagging ended, the vehicles were driven off — or in the case of the Bobcat, hauled away on a trailer — and put back to work. A bricklayer said he was headed back to 24th Street, where his crew was demolishing the rear of a vacant house "so it doesn't fall and kill somebody."

The action by the sheriff's office underscores the determination by plaintiffs to collect court-ordered judgments against the housing authority over lead paint poisoning, which can cause brain damage even in small amounts, leading to lifelong behavioral problems and learning disorders.

It also illustrates the extent of efforts by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City to avoid paying most court-ordered judgments against it, first brought to light in April by The Baltimore Sun. The agency owes more than $11 million, with 185 cases pending. Officials have said its financial survival depends on a stance of not paying these debts, which in any case would require federal approval.

Antonio Fulgham and his sister, Brittany McCutcheon, are "both delighted that the stalling tactics of the housing authority are finally coming to an end," said their attorney, David F. Albright Jr. "We intend to auction off every last computer, pen and paper clip until the judgment and interest are paid in full."

Nine months ago, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake promised angry state lawmakers that she would ensure that the housing authority and federal officials "share a plan for appropriate resolution" to the mounting judgments, but none has emerged. Her spokesman, Ryan O'Doherty, declined to comment Tuesday.

Now the housing authority, the nation's fifth-largest, faces the loss of nearly 10 percent of its vehicle fleet — cargo vans, pickup trucks, even a Bobcat. "There will be an impact, no question about it," said spokeswoman Cheron Porter. "Unfortunately, who will be impacted is those families we serve."

Attorney Evan M. Goldman, who has spent more than a year trying to force the authority to pay on behalf of clients like Fulgham and McCutcheon, blamed housing officials for forcing him to go after its trucks. "They put us in the unenviable position of having the sheriff execute a levy to potentially auction vehicles to pay these judgments," he said.

With interest, the agency now owes the siblings an additional $312,000. Goldman said he wasn't sure how much an auction would bring in but expects it to be a fraction of the $2.59 million judgment owed his clients.

The housing authority says it has resisted paying Fulgham and McCutcheon because it is appealing the jury's finding. Goldman and Albright both pointed out that the agency opted against posting an appeal bond that would have set money aside, so plaintiffs don't have to wait to collect.

In recent months the housing authority paid a few smaller judgments, even though its director, Paul T. Graziano, had insisted it couldn't pay, federal approval or not, because of the tidal wave of cases looming on the horizon. In October and November the agency paid three judgments — two involving lead paint and one involving mold — for $907,000, according to Porter.

Meanwhile, the authority faces seven unpaid judgments totaling a little more than $11 million. Two of the seven are on appeal, including the verdict in favor of Fulgham and McCutcheon.

Asked why the housing authority did not publicize the payments given the uproar over its refusal to pay court-mandated debts, Porter said, "There are no winners here, so this is not something we feel like we need to do a big banner parade about."

The authority has said that because most of its limited cash and assets are federal, they are beyond the reach of plaintiffs. Goldman and the housing authority have haggled for months in federal court over the question of which assets are or aren't property of the federal government.

Jannai C. Goslee, the housing authority's general counsel, said the agency was able to satisfy the three judgments only after working with officials from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to identify agency funds that did not originate from Washington.

Goslee said the recent payments don't indicate a willingness to pay more judgments. "It's limited, finite," she said of the pool of nonfederal funds. "As we sit here right now, we have not identified any other nonfederal funds, and we don't have authority to pay the funds without approval from HUD."

The 20 vehicles set to be "tagged" for auction by the sheriff's office were chosen because they weren't bought with federal money, Goldman said. Wednesday's visual inspection, first reported by The Daily Record, will involve trucks that are used for an array of purposes, including maintenance. (While Goldman says there are 21 vehicles, Porter said one was sold in May.)

Goldman, who disputes the agency's claims that it lacks money to pay the judgments, reiterated his criticism of the housing authority for spending large sums on outside lawyers.

In September The Sun reported that the agency spent $228,000 on lead paint litigation costs in May and June, which works out to more than $5,000 a day, including expenses. Since 2005 it has paid private lawyers about $4 million to defend against lead-paint claims.

McCutcheon and Fulgham are both in their early 20s. As small children in West Baltimore, they had blood lead readings far above the 10 micrograms per deciliter "level of concern" set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Albright. Hers was 17; his was 28.

Fulgham has a first-grade reading level and is "mildly retarded," according to an expert hired by Albright. Fulgham said he has no shot of achieving his dream of becoming a truck driver. McCutcheon graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in 2009 but doesn't have a job.

The two siblings have said they rely on their mother for financial support.

Porter, the housing authority spokeswoman, has said evidence at trial showed that both housing authority units where Fulgham and McCutcheon lived as children in the early 1990s were "lead free." "There was direct evidence of the absence of any lead-based paint at one address and direct evidence of the absence of lead-based dust at the other address," she wrote in an email last year.

Albright said while the testing company found only "minimal" amounts of lead, officials of the company refused to testify at the trial. He claimed the company didn't properly calibrate its testing equipment. Both housing units were demolished years ago.

Albright said the jury weighed "circumstantial evidence" that the two housing authority properties were the only places where the children lived when they were lead-poisoned. Their mother testified that she saw flaking paint.

Wednesday's tagging by the sheriff's office does not guarantee that the trucks will be auctioned. The housing authority left open the possibility that it will file an appeal in an attempt to avert a sale. Porter said officials are "considering all options available to us."