Graziano defends city housing authority amid Senate inquiry

Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano defended the city's public housing authority Friday, a day after a U.S. senator began an inquiry into what he termed "a wide range of allegations, including possible conflicts of interest, fraud, waste and abuse of taxpayers' monies."

Graziano said in a statement that "there have been a number of unfair accusations made against" the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. "We are confident that there has been no wrongdoing," he said.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican and one of the Senate's most active watchdogs, sent a letter Thursday to federal Housing Secretary Shaun S. Donovan requesting reams of documents.

Grassley is seeking information on a range of topics. He wants to know how Baltimore's authority spent $67 million in federal stimulus money and what steps federal officials took after a critical audit of the authority in 2008. He also requested detailed records on the authority's use of outside lawyers since 2003.

The Baltimore Sun reported recently that the authority has paid outside lawyers about $4 million since 2005 to fight lead-paint poisoning cases, with bills totaling $228,000 for May and June alone. Meanwhile, the authority has refused to pay $12 million in court-ordered judgments in cases in which former residents of public housing were poisoned by exposure to lead paint.

Much of Graziano's statement addressed the question of legal fees. He said Baltimore's public housing agency has spent a reasonable amount on private lawyers — "only $6.3 million since 2003," limited to cases requiring "specialized legal expertise."

Graziano said Grassley's letter announcing his inquiry had inappropriately compared Baltimore's housing authority to the troubled Philadelphia Housing Authority, which has spent far more on outside lawyers — $33 million since 2007, according to published reports.

Of the $6.3 million spent by Baltimore's agency since 2003, $4 million went to pay private lawyers in lead-paint cases, the statement said, "saving taxpayers over $400 million in unfounded claims."

Graziano's breakdown on spending for private counsel since 2003 is roughly the same as a total released earlier this year dating to 2005. Spokeswoman Cheron Porter said the agency's finance officials could not provide further details before Monday.

Graziano has said the housing authority cannot pay the existing $12 million in judgments without approval of the U.S. government. He repeated Friday that he is "working diligently" with federal officials to achieve a fair and equitable resolution.

Grassley has not gone into detail about the allegations, which he said reached his Senate office over the past few months in the form of telephone calls and emails.

He says housing authorities nationally operate with too little oversight. "Now that concerns have come to my attention regarding the Baltimore housing authority," he said Friday in a statement, "I have an obligation to ask questions, and that's what I'm doing."

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