OCEAN CITY — Disavowing remarks made by the state's chief housing official, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford said Saturday that the Hogan administration will not propose any easing of liability for landlords whose tenants' children are harmed by lead paint in rental homes.
Rutherford, who took the governor's traditional place as closing speaker at the summer convention of the Maryland Association of Counties, said Secretary of Housing and Community Development Kenneth C. Holt's call for such limits does not represent administration policy.
"I think he was a little bit off the reservation on that," Rutherford said in a brief news conference after his address.
Rutherford was filling in for Gov. Larry Hogan, who wound up his third round of chemotherapy Tuesday for treatment of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Rutherford said Hogan regretted missing the conference but had been advised to avoid large gatherings because the chemo could weaken his immune system.
That left Rutherford to answer questions about the comments Holt made Friday when appearing as part of a panel at the MACO conference.
Holt told the audience that his department was developing a proposal to limit landlord liability in lead paint cases, complaining it is too open-ended. He used an example of a mother putting a lead object such as a fishing weight in a child's mouth to increase lead levels in the bloodstream in order to gain free housing at the landlord's expense until the child turned 18.
Experts in lead paint poisoning said Holt's argument was both offensive and based on a misunderstanding of Maryland law, which has no such requirement. Holt said he could not point to any cases of a parent committing such an act. He said his comments were based on an anecdote he heard from a developer.
"I have no idea what was on his mind," Rutherford said. He added that Holt had not discussed the issue with him or the governor.
"It's very odd," Rutherford said. He said the secretary would be counseled about his comments but declined to elaborate.
Holt's comments prompted a call for his ouster from a retired Cockeysville physician who treated poor families.
Dr. William D. Hakkarinen said he sent an email to Hogan saying Holt knows nothing about the subject.
"What people say tells you what they think about others," Hakkarinen wrote. "Kenneth C. Holt has told us he thinks poor mothers care so little about their children that they would poison them to get free housing. Governor, this man has to go! Such idiocy has no place in our state government."
Holt, who once represented Baltimore County in the House of Delegates, remained in his job Saturday.
A spokeswoman released a statement on his behalf saying that "the secretary deeply regrets his comments and apologizes to anyone he offended. His statements do not reflect administration or departmental policy. Both the administration and department take the issue of lead poisoning very seriously and will always work protect the health and safety of Marylanders."
Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh, who was attending the conference, called Holt's example "silly" but offered a qualified defense of his fellow Republican.
"The point is valid that there are some people who will commit fraud to gain access to public benefits," he said.
Children harmed by lead paint in a home can sue landlords for compensation, and four years ago the state's highest court struck down a cap limiting damages. However, lead paint poisoning activist Ruth Ann Norton said Maryland law only requires landlords to provide free housing to a displaced family while lead abatement work is under way in the original home.
When children are exposed to lead through chipping and peeling paint in older homes, they can suffer serious brain damage, including lower-than-normal IQs. Though Maryland has made significant progress in reducing exposure, the risks are still prevalent in poor and minority communities in cities such as Baltimore that have a large stock of older housing.
Aside from his comments on lead Saturday, Rutherford recounted a list of the Hogan administration's accomplishments in its first six months in office — including lowering tolls and adding $845 million in new major road projects — and promised to keep pushing for a budget that is balanced over the long term.
"We're hoping to provide tax relief for all Marylanders," he said.
Rutherford also underscored Hogan's recent call for reform of Maryland's system for redrawing legislative and congressional district lines after each U.S. Census. The lieutenant governor pointed to the example of the 3rd Congressional District.
That district, considered one of the most gerrymandered in the country, sprawls from Baltimore County to Anne Arundel County in the east and Montgomery County in the west, taking in the part of Howard County where Rutherford lives.
"It is absolutely ridiculous. It looks like a bad intestine," Rutherford said.