'Nothing new' from Baltimore housing chief on unpaid lead judgments, Del. Rosenberg says

Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano met last month with an influential state lawmaker to discuss more than $8 million in unpaid court-ordered judgments against the city’s housing authority, which have resulted from lead-paint poisoning lawsuits brought by former public housing residents.

But Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg said Graziano did not cover new ground at the June 5 meeting. “There was nothing new that I was told,” said Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who is vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Rosenberg, who has publicly urged the authority to satisfy the judgments, declined to share details about the private discussion. Also mum were representatives of the housing agency and MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake, whose spokesman said she had directed Graziano to hold the meeting.

But the housing authority did reveal that the single-largest award, $5.75 million, was covered by an insurance company that has since gone bankrupt. The authority “is awaiting an insurance payout through a liquidation process,” spokeswoman Cheron Porter said Friday in an email. The agency had not previously said insurance would cover any of the unpaid judgments.

In response to questions from The Sun, Graziano — reappointed by the mayor last month — said in a statement that the housing authority “continues to seek an equitable and responsible resolution.” Without giving details, he wrote, “These efforts are on going with all parties actively engaged.”

Graziano has made similar pledges in the months since April 2011, when The Sun detailed how the authority was not paying court-ordered judgments, even when its lawyers agreed to dollar figures. But at the time Graziano justified the no-pay stance by saying “every dollar we spend on judgments is one less dollar that is available for major capital needs.”

While Graziano has disputed the notion that his agency is refusing to pay, eight of 13 judgments remain unpaid. (Two were reversed on appeal, and the authority paid three). Two of the eight are on appeal. The cases involve lead paint exposure dating back to the early 1990s, and the housing authority says it has been in full compliance with the state’s 1996 lead law.

Days after the Sun story, Rawlings-Blake told lawmakers in Annapolis that she would “ensure” that the housing authority and federal housing officials “share a plan for appropriate resolution” of the lead-paint judgments — and the hundreds of pending claims against the housing authority.

That has not happened, though mayoral spokesman Ryan O’Doherty said in a statement that Rawlings-Blake “continues to urge [the Housing Authority of Baltimore City] to resolve lead paint judgments and liabilities in a fair and responsible way while protecting public funds for the thousands of vulnerable low income housing families HABC serves today.”

O’Doherty said the mayor has directed the authority to meet with Rosenberg and other state lawmakers “to privately discuss specific legislative issues, as well as the broader issue.” Rosenberg said Graziano was accompanied by an agency lawyer and its legislative liaison, Nicholas Blendy.

Here is the June 29 statement from Graziano:

"The Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) remains deeply sympathetic to anyone who has suffered from lead paint poisoning and continues to seek an equitable and responsible resolution in these extremely complex legal proceedings. These efforts are on going with all parties actively engaged. HABC has been faced with 13 judgments, 5 of which have been resolved. Two of the resolved cases were reversed in favor of HABC on appeal.

As a policy the agency does not discuss lawsuits while legal proceedings are underway. It should be noted that while these cases were filed in the past few years; they involve incidents that occurred prior to the implementation of Maryland’s lead law in 1996. HABC has been fully compliant with this law and is providing lead safe housing to all it serves since its inception.

In addition to trying to resolve these matters, HABC has the great responsibility of providing homes for over 25,000 very low-income households throughout Baltimore city, while facing severe federal funding constraints. HABC currently faces over $900 million in claims to date with an open-ended timeframe to file additional claims. Serving our city’s most vulnerable populations is HABC first priority.”

Here is the June 29 statement from O’Doherty:

“The Mayor continues to urge HABC to resolve lead paint judgments and liabilities in a fair and responsible way while protecting public funds for the thousands of vulnerable low income housing families HABC serves today. Efforts to address old cases and liabilities are the subject of ongoing, complex litigation, and we are deeply saddened by the tragedy of anyone who may have suffered damage as a result of lead paint poisoning.

At the Mayor’s direction, HABC has met with state legislators, including Del. Rosenberg this month, to privately discuss specific legislative issues, as well as the broader issue. Additionally, In light of the Court of Appeals’ decision in October 2011, Jackson v. Dackman, the Governor and General Assembly—through Chapter 373 of the 2012 Laws of Maryland—mandated that the Maryland Insurance Commissioner create a workgroup to evaluate and make recommendations relating to lead liability protection for owners of pre-1978 rental property. The workgroup will meet over the coming weeks and months and plans to issue a final report of its findings to the General Assembly in December 2012. Both the City of Baltimore and HABC have been involved and closely monitoring the workgroup.

Since 1996, HABC has been in full compliance with Maryland’s Lead Paint Risk Reduction Act and the lead paint judgments and claims currently being discussed relate to lead exposures that occurred or allegedly occurred 15 to 20 years ago, before enactment of the law. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals recently overturned a $2.6 Million lead paint judgment against HABC that was prominently reported by the Baltimore Sun. In that case and others, HABC has a responsibility to defend against lawsuits to protect limited resources for the 50,000 low income housing residents they serve today.”

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