Who's Afraid of Frank Scarfield?
Not Peter Muntjan, and He's Willing to Fight a Million-Dollar Libel Suit For His Right to Call His Landlord a Crook
There was a commotion in the lobby of the Baltimore County Office Building, in Towson, on May 2. Attorney Mark Wittstadt, a tan guy with salt-and-pepper hair, dressed in white slacks and a dark sport coat, approached Peter Muntjan. As Wittstadt began to speak, Muntjan, a bulky man with a graying pony tail, dressed in a gray suit and black pinstriped shirt, erupted.
"Get away from me! Don't talk to me, talk to my lawyer," he yelled over Wittstadt's rising voice. "Get away from me, shyster-filth! Get away from me shyster-filth! Get-away-from-me-shyster-filth! Are you trying to threaten me?"
It was another episode in a decade-long dispute, now chronicled in a two-volume court case titled Frank D. Scarfield Sr. vs. Peter A. Muntjan, et al., filed two years ago as a million-dollar defamation and libel suit. Since 2005 the case has morphed, with the addition of defendants and copious counterclaims, into a legal referendum on the character of one of Baltimore County's more prominent landlords--and what might be his most vexing tenant.
Wittstadt left the building with his client Scarfield as Muntjan picked up a heavy, padded case that had fallen to the floor during the exchange. Inside the case was a video camera--which he drew like a pistol and aimed at his adversary--and a large audio cassette recorder loaded with a tape marked "Scarfield Threat."
Muntjan had just played that tape inside Room 106, at a twice-postponed administrative hearing (officially unrelated to the lawsuit) involving a junkyard on one of Scarfield's largest properties--Seagrams' old Sollers Point Road distillery site in Dundalk--where Muntjan is a tenant. He played the tape again outside; Scarfield's gravelly Dundalk accent spilled from the speaker: "This is Frank. Pete, I want to talk to you. You know, if you don't keep your mouth shut, I will send some people down to see you."
Muntjan, who operates a print shop from a dilapidated brick building on the 12-acre property, claims that years-ago threat, plus a series of assaults, sabotages, and attempted extortions, form the core of Scarfield's business model. He says he was sued for telling the plain truth about Frank Scarfield in a flier that offered a "$500 Reward" for information leading to Scarfield's conviction "for any felony."
Wittstadt says Muntjan and two co-defendants were tenants from hell who "terrorized" Scarfield and his family. On April 23, an arsonist burned Wittstadt's Dundalk Avenue law office, which is owned by Scarfield. "The day of the fire Mr. Muntjan was standing outside on the parking lot taking pictures and laughing and gloating," says Wittstadt, who has instructed Scarfield not to speak to a reporter. "That's the kind of man he is."
Muntjan, 49, is a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate who started his graphics business in Washington, D.C., in the late 1970s. After an influx of land speculators pushed him out in the late '80s, he landed in what he calls a West Baltimore "war zone" for a year or two, then for two years he enjoyed free rent in a building near Fells Point, he says. In 1995 Muntjan had to move again, and he met Frank Scarfield. The space was raw--"full of pigeon droppings," and without power or water, Muntjan says--but the rent was cheap and Muntjan says the Dundalk space seemed safer than his old Upper Fells haunt.
The feud started shortly after that, according to an affidavit made part of the lawsuit. Muntjan says Scarfield asked him to give him "large graphic art in the form of building signage to be placed on Scarfield's property," according to the countersuit. When Muntjan refused, Scarfield tried to kick him out and threatened to "break the locks off the doors."
Later, Muntjan says, he did make a sign for Scarfield--which he says Scarfield didn't pay for. Then Scarfield asked for an even bigger sign--also for free--and when Muntjan refused him Scarfield "picked up a 2x4 and forcefully struck the tire of Mr. Muntjan's car while yelling `you owe me,'" according to the suit. Muntjan's suit says Scarfield then chased him into his office threatening to "break his kneecaps."
By 2004, according to the suit, Scarfield wanted Muntjan out of the building so he could demolish it and redevelop the site, so he arranged for Muntjan's power and phone lines to be cut, and then collapsed an adjacent building across Muntjan's driveway, trapping Muntjan's car behind tons of rubble. After three weeks, Muntjan got a judge to issue an injunction, forcing Scarfield to clean up the pile. This enraged Scarfield, Muntjan's suit claims: "On June 9, 2004, Scarfield came looking for Mr. Muntjan with a sledgehammer. Scarfield broke open Mr. Muntjan's door with the sledgehammer and threatened Mr. Muntjan with `war.'"
Scarfield, who turns 75 on May 17, owns eight apartment complexes and at least two shopping centers in Baltimore City and County. He has been a target of the tenants' rights group ACORN and has contributed to the political campaigns of state Sen. George Della (D-46th District), Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy, and Gov. Martin O'Malley, among others. He bought the Seagrams site in 1994 for $425,000 and recently announced he had sold the site for an undisclosed sum to Baltimore vending machine entrepreneur John Vontran and restaurateur Paul Oliver.
"Mr. Scarfield just wants to be left alone," Wittstadt says. "There is no evidence that Mr. Scarfield ever laid a hand on Mr. Muntjan. Mr. Muntjan says it was just threats."
In the spring of 2005, Muntjan produced what has since been dubbed the "Wanted Poster," a one-page offer of a $500 reward for information leading to Scarfield's conviction "for any felony, including extortion, theft or intimidation." The flier, featuring three photographs of a black-hatted Scarfield, asserts that Scarfield "enjoys a criminal record 46 pages long primarily for the subjugation of his tenants to conditions unfit even for animals."
Muntjan says he snapped the photos on the poster as Scarfield menaced him yet again after cutting off his electricity.
Scarfield sued for defamation and got a judge to issue an injunction barring Muntjan from distributing his poster. Demanding $500,000 in compensatory and $500,000 in punitive damages, Scarfield's defamation suit claims Muntjan has "continually breached the terms of the lease agreement" and "continually harassed" Scarfield, "his agents, servants and employees" even as Scarfield "has consistently honored the terms and conditions of the lease agreement."
Scarfield's suit says Muntjan published the flier "with knowledge of the falsity of the statements, with intent to harm the reputation of [Scarfield] and with actual malice." Scarfield thereby "suffered mental anguish and personal humiliation," the suit claims, plus a loss of prospective income associated with current and future rentals of his properties.
Muntjan countersued for the same amounts, claiming Scarfield had terrorized him. Meanwhile, two other Scarfield tenants--James Hughes and Stephen George--posted copies of Muntjan's flier around Dundalk, including inside the building housing Wittstadt's law office. Muntjan says he never heard of the two until Scarfield sued them as well. They went to court without a lawyer and filed confusing claims that repeatedly cited the "reasonable accommodations" requirement under the Fair Housing Act. Enjoined from posting the "Wanted Poster," George violated that court order and last April was held in contempt of court. Circuit Court Judge Lawrence R. Daniels dismissed his countersuit against Scarfield, but Hughes is still pressing the same counterclaims with the aid of attorney Gregory L. Lockwood.
As the case has wound through the system the parties have argued about jurisdiction, the judges (after first refusing to do so, Judge Daniels, who belongs to the same Italian-American social club as Scarfield, recused himself), and "discovery," the legal process by which litigants get to look at each other's evidence. Citing Scarfield's claim of business loss, Muntjan demanded to see Scarfield's business records. Scarfield then amended his own lawsuit's actual damage claim from $500,000 to $1 in an effort to keep them confidential.
Muntjan loathes Scarfield and his lawyer. Without evidence, he suggests that the fire in Wittstadt's office was set by Scarfield's "lackeys" in order to destroy business records related to his case. (On April 26, police charged George M. Perez, 32, with setting the fires. The investigation is ongoing.)
In order to prove his libel case, Scarfield has to show that something in Muntjan's flier was false. Court filings focus on the claim that Scarfield "enjoys a criminal record that is 46 pages long."
Wrote Scarfield in an affidavit: "I am not a criminal; as the Defendants would have the general public believe, and I have not stolen or extorted any money or property."
An online search of Maryland court records finds eight cases in which Frank D. Scarfield Sr. was charged with criminal offenses in Maryland. They range from a 1984 theft, which was not prosecuted, to a series of 1997 housing cases. There is a battery case as well.
Scarfield's only conviction is a 1985 housing case for which he received three years' probation and paid a $300 fine, the record indicates. The records number 13 printed pages.
But Muntjan (who had several scrapes with the law in the 1980s, including six months probation in 1989 on a charge of malicious destruction of property) says he got Scarfield's "46-page criminal record" from the Baltimore County court clerk. His lawyer, Matthew Sturtz, amended the claim slightly in a filing last year. The alleged criminal file actually numbered 48 pages, he said.
The file consists mainly of citations for housing-code violations, which Wittstadt contends are not criminal records.
In his office, Sturtz produces a citation from the 48-page file. It says "failure to comply . . . is a misdemeanor"--a criminal offense.
"The case is larger than that," says Sturtz, who is defending Muntjan for free. "We have alleged that this man has engaged in a multiyear campaign of assaults and intimidation."
Scarfield v. Muntjan is scheduled for trial on Aug. 22 in front of Judge Vicki Ballou-Watts.
Clarification 6/5/2007: Attorney Mark Wittstadt assures us that he would never call Peter Muntjan and other tenants his client Frank Scarfield is suing for defamation "tenants from hell," words City Paper used to boil down his numerous court filings on the matter. "I would just characterize them as very difficult tenants to deal with," Wittstadt says. "I would never classify anyone as tenants from hell."
A Pattern of Failure (3/2/2010)
A new state bill seeks to make child neglect a felony
Skilling to Supremes: Define "Honest Services" (3/1/2010)
Skilling to Supremes: Define %u2018Honest Services'
No Way, Lynae (12/10/2009)
Prison Guard's Attempt to Plead Guilty in Cell-Phone Case Denied
Old Habits (7/28/2010)
Medicalization is the hot new thing in drug treatment. Just like in 1970.
Room for Improvement (7/14/2010)
Celebrated crime control measure actually a flop, former chief reveals
Shelling Out (7/7/2010)
Mortgage broker goes bankrupt, seeks mortgage modification as taxpayers face mounting bailout bills
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201