Sheriff moves to seize 20 housing authority vehicles

Representatives from the Baltimore sheriff's office moved across a city housing authority parking lot Wednesday morning, tagging 20 of the agency's vehicles to be seized and eventually sold to pay part of a court judgment to lead paint victims.

The Housing Authority of Baltimore City has resisted paying siblings Antonio Fulgham and Brittany McCutcheon the $2.59 million awarded by a jury in 2010, as the agency appeals the case. But the plaintiffs, who suffered lead poisoning while living in public housing, have filed legal actions to move forward with collecting the debts. The levy against the vehicles, and Wednesday's tagging, paves the way for them to be auctioned.

It was an almost unheard-of step for a public entity, said James Peck, research director of the Maryland Municipal League, an association of city and town governments. "I've been here 28 years, and I can't recall something similar happening," Peck said. "It's certainly highly unusual."

Just after 9 a.m., two members of the sheriff's office moved across a housing authority parking lot in East Baltimore, verifying information and slapping each vehicle 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 dump truck to the 2007 take-home Jeep Cherokee driven by the unit's chief, Claude "Buzz" Wolfe.

Wednesday's action was only the first step in the seizure process, and none of the vehicles were removed or taken out of service. But housing officials say the loss of the vehicles 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 housing authority has resisted paying more than $11 million in court-ordered lead-paint judgments, and another 185 cases are pending. Agency officials say the housing authority would go bankrupt if forced to pay all pending and future judgments. Lead paint poisoning can cause brain damage even in small amounts, leading to lifelong behavioral problems and learning disorders.

The tagging of publicly owned vehicles by the sheriff is "a new one to me," said Peck of the municipal league. "Generally, municipalities and, I imagine, counties tend to be pretty assiduous about paying whatever debts they have outstanding," he said.

City Solicitor George Nilson said he was unaware of any similar actions against Baltimore government over the past six years. The housing authority is an independent entity established under state law and financed largely by federal funds. Its director, Paul T. Graziano, also serves as the mayor's housing commissioner.

Attorney Evan M. Goldman, who represents Fulgham and McCutcheon, said he plans to schedule an auction for the vehicles in the next 30 to 45 days.

"All along, our intention has been to get paid, not to disrupt their work," he said.

The housing authority has paid some court judgments, including $907,000 recently to three former public housing residents. Goldman represents plaintiffs in two of the cases and said they were paid more than $400,000 after he secured garnishments of agency bank accounts.

The authority has said that because most of its assets are federal, plaintiffs cannot seize them. Goldman and the housing authority have haggled in federal court over the question of which assets are property of the federal government. U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. issued a ruling last year that cleared the way for the 20 vehicles to be seized.

Goldman said another levy was sent to the sheriff's office more than a month ago for housing authority property. That list covers 185 pieces of office equipment such as computers and printers. Goldman said he would move to have those auctioned, too, though he didn't know when the sheriff's office would tag them. A sheriff's office representative did not return calls Wednesday.

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