Baltimore City

Councilman seeks federal backing to push city on lead paint payments

The chairman of a City Council committee says he will ask federal officials to push Baltimore's public housing agency to pay a six-figure judgment for lead-paint poisoning, saying the agency had effectively stuck its tongue out by refusing to budge on the issue.

The dispute is the latest development in a story that came to light in April, when housing authority executive director Paul T. Graziano said the cash-strapped agency could not, and would not, pay nearly $12 million in court-ordered lead poisoning judgments against it.

Councilman James B. Kraft said Thursday that he was "very dissatisfied" with Graziano's refusal to seek federal approval to pay one judgment in particular — a $200,000 consent judgment involving a former public housing resident named Daron E. Goods.

Kraft faulted the local agency for reaching an agreement with Goods in 2009 but then refusing to pay the mutually agreed-upon sum of $200,000 and fighting his subsequent efforts to collect.

"To just say we'll confess judgment to you and sort of stick your tongue out afterward and say, 'We got you, didn't we?' — which is effectively what they're doing — it's not fair," Kraft said.

While Goods is not the only plaintiff with a consent judgment against the housing authority, Kraft said he focused on that case because he knows more about it. He plans to contact federal housing officials soon and say, "You need to make them do the right thing."

Housing authority spokeswoman Cheron Porter said the agency had no comment on Kraft's remarks.

Baltimore's public housing authority, the nation's fifth-largest with a budget of $300 million, has maintained that it cannot pay residents poisoned years ago by lead paint in public housing. Graziano says the vast majority of the authority's assets are federal and therefore beyond the plaintiffs' reach.

Even if the authority could pay the nine existing judgments totaling nearly $12 million, Graziano says, it could never afford hundreds of millions of dollars in unresolved claims winding through the courts.

In late May, Graziano testified at an emotional hearing before the council's Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, chaired by Kraft. After Graziano repeated that most agency assets are federal, Kraft requested that he seek approval from federal housing officials to pay Goods, now 24.

But Graziano, who also serves as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's housing commissioner, did not do so. Instead, he sent Kraft a letter saying the Goods case was tied up in federal court, where a judge is weighing the plaintiffs' efforts to collect from the authority.

"Although HABC entered into a consent judgment in the Goods case," Graziano noted, "the judgment was not a settlement of the case. Instead, HABC agreed to allow a consent judgment against it to limit the risk of an extremely large jury verdict and to defray the costs of defense."

But two law professors say the housing authority is taking an unusual stance by refusing to pay after admitting liability and agreeing to a dollar figure.

"There's a moral aspect to it," said University of Maryland law professor Maxwell Chibundu. "You can't say, 'I admit I've done you wrong and owe you this much, but I'm not going to pay you.'"

Chibundu said there's nothing illegal about it, but "most people would frown on this strategic use of the legal system."

University of Baltimore law professor Charles Tiefer said in April that the housing authority's approach is not typical. "It is usually expected that a defendant who signs a consent judgment will actually pay the judgment and not start challenging the victim-plaintiff to try and collect," he said.

Scott Nevin, Goods' lawyer, contends the housing authority "fraudulently induced" his client to accept a deal that it did not plan to fulfill.

"Essentially, this was a settlement," he wrote in a letter to City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. Yet the agency now "pays lawyers with the money it claims not to have, to fight Mr. Goods in his efforts to collect the money they agreed to pay him!"