A Baltimore rental-property owner with a record of lead-paint violations in properties throughout the city was sentenced to a year and a day in prison by a federal judge.
|Lead paint in older housing has become a flashpoint in Baltimore and the state of Maryland, and the city housing authority faces millions of dollars in legal judgments related to lead-paint exposure.|
Cephus R. Murrell, 69, of Catonsville, Md., was also sentenced to six months’ of home detention (as part of a one-year supervised release) for improper lead-paint abatement at his rental properties and failure to disclose to tenants the presence of documented lead-based paint hazards, according to an announcement made by U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein.
Murrell, through his business C. Murrell Business Consultants Inc., owned and managed 68 properties with approximately 175 rental housing units throughout Baltimore, all built prior to 1978, officials said.
“Cephus Murrell placed Baltimore children at risk of permanent injuries by violating federal law and ignoring repeated orders to comply with lead-paint regulations,” Rosenstein said. “It is unacceptable in 2012 for pregnant women and children to be exposed to lead paint in violation of the law.”
A landlord since 1974, Murrell had been issued more than 20 lead-paint violation notices and compliance orders by state and local environmental agencies, authorities said.
The Baltimore Sun reported that Murrell, in a brief statement, said he was “brought up to help people,” and expressed remorse regarding his handling of lead-paint issues, saying, “I really should have exercised more supervision.”
Officials said the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and other agencies conducted numerous lead inspections at Murrell’s properties and discovered children with elevated blood levels living there.
Murrell also entered into a number of consent decrees with state and city officials, with the aim of bringing the properties into compliance, officials said.
On July 19, 2011, Murrell pleaded guilty to three misdemeanor counts of violating the Toxic Substances Control Act and faced a possible 18-month prison sentence and fines; see D+D’s coverage of the case, Baltimore Landlord Pleads Guilty to Extensive List of Lead-Paint Violations.
During his sentencing, Murrell’s attorney Paul Mark Sandler asked the judge not to imprison his client, arguing that Murrell had good intentions but was in over his head, according to the Sun’s report.
In addition, Sandler told the judge that Murrell turned his properties over to a trustee after filing bankruptcy in March.
But prosecutor U.S. Attorney P. Michael Cunningham argued that it was not clear whether Murrell was still involved or whether his properties had actually been brought into compliance with lead-paint laws, the Sun reported.
U.S. District Court Judge Benson E. Legg lessened the sentence in light of the defendant’s age and character witnesses, but imposed prison time due to the “seriousness of lead poisoning and as a deterrent to other noncompliant landlords,” the Sun reported.
Lead Abatement Gone Wrong
Murrell’s list of violations included a lead-paint abatement project performed at one of his apartments on Sept. 15, 2010, while one of the tenants and his children were present on site, in violation of lead-paint abatement regulations.
In addition, Murrell provided MDE with a “Project Notification Form” for the work in which he falsely stated that a particular supervisor would be overseeing the work, when in fact a supervisor was not present, also in violation of the lead-paint abatement regulations, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
Murrell also admitted that there were several instances in which he falsely certified that workers conducting lead-paint abatement work would be supervised but were not, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
For example, Murrell had notified MDE that he would be conducting abatement work on August 31, 2010, and that a specific individual would be supervising; however, when officials from MDE visited the apartment on that date they found workers conducting abatement work with no supervisor present. The alleged supervisor was, in fact, out of town on travel.
Tenants Not Aware of Lead-Paint History
In the case, Murrell also admitted that he and his company failed to disclose to tenants the presence of documented lead-based paint hazards units were rented.
Many of the units had a history of lead-based paint problems that had been documented by state agencies, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
Despite these findings and prior enforcement actions by the state and city agencies, Murrell did not provide tenants with the required “Lead-Based Paint Notification Disclosure Form” and failed to:
• give prospective tenants an EPA-approved information pamphlet on identifying and controlling lead-based paint hazards;
• disclose to prospective tenants any known information concerning lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards, the location of those hazards, and the condition of the relevant surfaces;
• provide prospective tenants with any records and reports on lead-based paint and/or lead-based paint hazards; and
• include an attachment to the lease (or to insert relevant language in the lease itself) which provides a “Lead Warning Statement” and confirms that the landlord has complied with all notification requirements.
Wake-Up Call to Those Who Don’t Comply
“Americans need accurate and truthful information in order to make informed decisions about where they will live,” said David G. McLeod Jr., special agent in charge of EPA’s criminal enforcement program in Maryland.
He said the Murrell case and prison sentence should demonstrate “that anyone who fails to comply with environmental regulations will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
And said MDE Secretary Robert Summers: “This criminal sentence and the repeated findings of violations and related penalties issued by the Maryland Department of the Environment puts all property owners on notice that they have a serious responsibility to protect families from the devastating effects of lead poisoning.
“Reducing exposure to lead paint dust is the core of Maryland’s highly successful program to prevent lead poisoning,” Summers said. “Landlords must follow all laws that protect children from this entirely preventable disease.”
Lead paint in older housing has become a hotly debated issue in Baltimore and the state of Maryland. The city housing authority faces millions of dollars in legal judgments related to lead-paint exposure, but the agency says an additional 175 pending claims carry a potential total price tag of $1 billion.
The city’s lead-paint problems have received extensive news coverage, including this report on a court case involving the city's housing authority.