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Quick and Dirty

No Fault

Contractor John Elder Denies Responsibility for Building Collapses

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 11/22/2006

Engineer John D. Elder has told a state inquiry he is not responsible for any of the four Baltimore home collapses City Paper detailed in a story earlier this year ("Collapse," Aug. 2), and he was dropped from the lawsuit the story cited.

The Maryland Board for Professional Engineers began an investigation into Elder's engineering work after City Paper detailed Elder's criminal history, which he did not detail as required on his license-renewal application, and his involvement in four separate collapses in Baltimore City. On Oct. 7, Elder responded to the board's inquiry, explaining that in each collapse he was not responsible and could have done nothing to prevent it. Elder gave a copy of his response to City Paper.

At 106 E. Montgomery St., Elder wrote that owner Tom Bird was solely responsible, because he hired unlicensed contractors who overexcavated without Elder's knowledge. Bird has since been charged with housing violations in the matter, according to records and interviews, and that case is pending in Baltimore City District Court.

The collapse of 201 E. Gittings St. was similar, Elder wrote, except that it went down at a time when "Baltimore City was responsible for all construction inspections and site visits," so Elder was removed even further from responsibility. The owner there, Gregory Szczepaniak, sued Elder for his involvement in the 2003 collapse but dropped the engineer from the suit in August. In a conversation last summer, Szczepaniak's lawyer acknowledged that Elder--who does not own a home in his own name and says he does not carry liability insurance--is "judgment proof," meaning that he could avoid paying monetary damages even if the court ordered them. The case appears to have been settled in late October. Calls to Szczepaniak's lawyer were not returned.

At 3409 Harmony Court, Elder wrote, the owner hired someone to dig out the basement with a backhoe--without informing Elder. As evidence, Elder cited a letter from Mike Coster of b4 Design, with whom Elder has worked closely for years. The final case, 1600 Clarkson St., had collapsed before Elder was even hired, he wrote to the board. In that case, the city's permit office had granted a vague permit for "digging out basement."

The Maryland Board for Professional Engineers apparently did not ask Elder about his criminal history, even though the license application and renewal applications on which he failed to divulge his criminal convictions states that he certified its accuracy "under penalty of perjury."

Elder says he is waiting for a response from the board. "I don't know their process," he says. "I've never been in trouble before with the board."

An investigation by the city's Inspector General's office continues ("Walls Come Tumbling Down," Mobtown Beat, Nov. 8).

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