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NYCHA Chair Grilled Over Lapse In Lead Paint Inspections

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – New York City Housing Authority Chair Shola Olatoye was on the hot seat Tuesday.

As CBS2 Political Reporter Marcia Kramer reported Tuesday, Olatoye was grilled for hours by furious City Council members about the agency's failure to inspect properly for lead paint in public housing.

For Sherron Paige, a Brooklyn mother who said her son got sick because her apartment was not inspected, the hearing was just too much. Paige broke down in tears at the hearing, while Olatoye publicly admitted that NYCHA did not perform required lead inspections from 2012 to 2016.

She also admitted she misled the feds by certifying the work was, in fact, done.

"At one point during the hearing, you took out a tissue and started crying," Kramer said to Paige. "What brought you to tears? Why were you so upset?"

"Because Miss James said exactly everything that my child is facing – everything that he's going through. Everything that she mentioned what my child is going through," Paige said.

Paige sobbed as Public Advocate Letitia James described lead poisoning symptoms – symptoms she said her 4-year-old son, Kyan Dickerson, exhibits.

"Lead poisoning in young people can mean brain damage and low IQ scores, and reduced potential for learning; learning disorders," James said.

Paige said that was exactly what happened to Kyan.

"I'm hurt. My child has a speech delay. My child can't focus properly in school, OK?" she said. "They're ready to put my child in special ed, because he can't really communicate."

Paige, who lives in the Red Hook Houses development, said the lead paint dangers were concealed from her by the city. The full extent of the problem was made public only recently when Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters issued a report that detailed NYCHA's failings.

Paige is angry with Mayor Bill de Blasio, who initially downplayed NYCHA's mistakes.

"It's important to recognize as troubling as this story is, that when you dig in to the facts, thank God there is less here than appears," de Blasio said on Nov. 20. "Thank God there has not been harm done to any child because of the mistakes that were made. I want to give you a context for that."

Paige is also angry with Olatoye, and so were some City Council members.

Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres (D-15th), himself a product of public housing, wanted to know why it took Olatoye so long to tell the public the agency was breaking the law on lead inspections and abatements.

Torres: "You went 15 to 16 months without telling the general public."

Olatoye: "It was approximately a year on the HUD compliance piece, yes."

Torres: "But regarding local law, you've known about local law non-compliance since April. So you've gone 15 months without telling the general public that your agency was out of compliance. Do you regret that?"

Olatoye: "Look as I've said, in hindsight, our communication could have been better."

The councilman also questioned the notifications that were sent to residents, which initially did not say the inspections had not taken place.

Torres: "I know you sent them a letter -- specifically stating that NYCHA was out of compliance?"

Olatoye: "You know what we did say was that we needed to conduct an inspection…"

Torres: "Which is quite different from saying that you were out of compliance."

Olatoye: "And in hindsight, our communication could have been more precise."

The chairwoman said repeatedly there was no intent to mislead.

When asked when she told Mayor de Blasio, she said she informed city attorneys but did not know when they told the mayor.

Torres went on to ask Olatoye about paperwork she submitted to the federal government, falsely claiming the agency had checked 55,000 apartments for lead.

Torres: "I'm asking you: When did you find out about the false certifications? And I'm not getting a clear answer from you."

Olatoye: "As part of the ongoing investigation by the southern district, we began to uncover the compliance gaps. And that information became clearer to me in 2017."

Torres: "When in 2017?"

Olatoye: "I don't recall a specific date."

Torres: "So you do not recall when in 2017 you discovered that your agency was falsely certifying lead-safety inspections?"

Olatoye: "I don't recall a specific date. I do not."

Torres: "I just, I find that incredible."

The councilman also wondered if thousands of inspections done by untrained workers will have to be redone.

At one point, a member of the audience stood up and shouted, "You're killing our kids!" Another interrupted, saying "Great job covering for the mayor!" Both were escorted out.

As for Paige, she said she was not satisfied with Olatoye's testimony.

"She's not answering the questions," Paige said. "They just inspected my apartment after everything hit the fan. There was no lead inspection in my apartment since I've been in that apartment, and my son is 4 years old."

The first time NYCHA publicly acknowledged the problem was last July, when it amended its false filing with the federal government. It was about the same time Paige's son tested positive for lead poisoning.

She is filing a lawsuit against the city.

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