By Eric Freedman
Federal authorities have charged the owner and manager of more than 100 buildings in Buffalo with conspiracy for violating laws intended to protect tenants from lead paint poisoning.
The criminal complaint accuses Engel Dalfin and Paul Heil of conspiring to commit wire fraud and conspiring to make false documents to coverup the presence of lead in tenants’ homes. That included lying about the presence of lead-based paint, which can have serious, even deadly, health effects, especially for children, it said.
Dalfin, who lives in Baltimore, Maryland, is identified in legal documents as the property owner and Heil, who lives in Buffalo, as the on-the-ground property manager.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body, often over months or years. Even small amounts of lead can cause serious health problems. Children younger than 6 years are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can severely affect mental and physical development. At very high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal.”
The charges follow a three-year criminal investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency about properties that the Erie County Health Department had cited earlier for lead paint hazard violations.
“The health department had also received several reports of children with elevated blood levels residing at the properties,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Buffalo said in a news release announcing the charges.
The criminal complaint described a “long-documented history” of problems with the properties. Authorities said at least 54 of the properties were cited for lead-related hazards between 2013 and 2020, and at least 23 children living in them had elevated blood levels.
Heil’s attorney, Parker MacKay of Kenmore, New York, said in an email that his client and the prosecution “are exploring the possibility of whether the case can be resolved prior to an indictment.”
The federal court file does not list a criminal defense attorney for Dalfin. His lawyer in a related civil case launched by the New York Attorney General’s Office has withdrawn from the case, according to MacKay,
In 2020, the Attorney General’s Office filed a civil suit accusing the two men and related companies with “repeatedly and persistently violating county, city, state and federal laws by illegally allowing lead paint-related hazards to proliferate in their rental properties.
“The violations by the real estate group, which has owned and managed more than 150 single- and two-family homes in predominantly low-income communities of color, has led to dozens of reported instances of childhood lead poisoning,” the Attorney General’s Office said.
It also cited other violations by the real estate group dating back to 2017, including using shell companies to avoid Buffalo’s rental registration requirement, evicting tenants from lead-poisoned homes in violation of state law and failing to follow city and state property management and real estate broker licensing requirements.
The civil case is ongoing, the Attorney General’s Office and MacKay said.
MacKay said it’s disappointing that both civil and criminal actions were filed because Heil had cooperated by working with the Attorney General’s Office “since the investigation stage began several years ago, long before a suit was ever filed.
“Our position is that Mr. Heil worked in good faith to comply with the complexities of local, state and federal laws and regulations, as well as the real-world difficulties of dealing with multiple oversight agencies, on lead paint abatement in the city of Buffalo, given the resources and direction he was provided,” McKay said. “Indeed, in many cases, the relevant oversight agency tasked with certifying compliance deemed Mr. Heil’s efforts to abate lead paint concerns satisfactory after inspection.”
The new federal criminal complaint alleges that Dalfin and Heil failed to provide some tenants with mandatory lead disclosure notices and made false statements in some disclosures it did give to other tenants, all with the intent to conceal hazardous conditions.
It also alleges that the two lied to potential investors in some of the properties.
The charges carry a possible maximum sentence of five years behind bars and a $250,000 fine.