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Abraham’s tenants may have to vacate after city fines controversial property owner $2.1 million

Controversial property owner Billy Abraham has been issued a $2.1 million penalty for building code violations at one of his properties in Downtown by the City of El Paso.

Abraham will also have to fix a slew of violations within 30 days to avoid losing his certificate of occupancy which would force the removal of two tenants who pay rent to Abraham.

“I think it’s ridiculous. They are excessive. They are unconstitutional,” said Abraham’s lawyer in an interview on Thursday, referring to the city’s penalties.

City Attorney Laura Gordon on Wednesday night asked the City’s Building and Standards Commission to approve the penalty which was derived by charging Abraham a $1,000 per day fine for the 2,158 days that he did not comply with a city order issued March 31, 2010. The City at that time gave Abraham 60 days to comply with the order but on the 55th day Abraham filed suit against the City, tangling the issue in court for six years.

“He did comply with as much as he could. The (city’s) order is vague and ambiguous and he was trying to comply as best he could with what he understood it to be,” said Robert Skipworth, Abraham’s attorney. But city officials say Abraham only offered empty promised and did the bare minimum to abuse the system.

The seven story building at the corner of San Antonio and Oregon, known as the American Furniture building, is only occupied by two tenants on the first floor. The rest is vacant. “The tenants are making due with very substandard facilities. Like for example bathroom facilities, plumbing and there’s also hazards related to the fact that storage of combustibles and debris above the first floor so we have evidence to show that there are a lot of things that could have been done during the six years,” said Gordon.

The tenants, a UPS office and a dress shop would be forced to move out if Abraham doesn’t fix the violations in 30 days. “It’s truly unfair to penalize the tenant. I don’t think that’s right,” said Philip Kim, who owns the dress shop. Kim owns the Rio Grande clothing store across the street from Abraham’s building. He uses his shop in Abraham’s building as a showcase, Kim said.

Kim said Abraham installed running water and a bathroom a few years ago facing pressure from the city. He said he has not experienced a safety hazard in the building.

Gordon said the city is “sensitive” to the business owners. “The business owners are not at fault. They weren’t aware of all the deficiencies but at the time which was in March of 2010. We’re trying to find a balance between enforcing the safety codes and allowing people to operate their businesses.” She also suggested to the Commission, who approved her recommendations unanimously, to send a strong message to Abraham for deliberately ignoring city codes.

Skipworth said the City was trying to make Abraham a “poster boy to whip in the public.”

Abraham is in prison for a deadly drunk driving crash.

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