The director of Baltimore's ethics board — a full-time city employee — is performing legal work on behalf of developers embroiled in a zoning battle in Baltimore County.
Avery Aisenstark, who is paid $94,000 as director of the city's department of legislative reference and its ethics board, attended a court hearing Wednesday afternoon in Towson about an effort to challenge some county zoning decisions. Though he did not address the court, Aisenstark acknowledged that he is working on behalf of a group waging the fight, called the Committee for Zoning Integrity.
The group is funded by the Cordish Cos. and Howard Brown of David S. Brown Enterprises, as well as owners of the Garrison Forest Plaza and Green Spring Station shopping centers, according to disclosure reports.
Fred Guy, director of the University of Baltimore's Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics, said Aisenstark's work for the developers' committee "could be perceived as a conflict of interest."
"It may be perfectly legal, but officials need to at all cost avoid such perceptions," Guy said.
Aisenstark, who runs a law firm called Avery Aisenstark LLC, said he was at the court hearing because he is doing legal work for Stuart Kaplow, the attorney for the committee. Aisenstark said he attended the proceeding "on my own time."
"I do not have a personal interest in this dispute," he said. "I am working as a lawyer in a private capacity."
Cordish and Brown have both sought city approvals in connection with their business interests in recent years. Cordish, for instance, sought a $3 million rent abatement last year on the Power Plant Live development. Brown is seeking city approval to demolish the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre to build two residential towers, three stories of retail space and five levels of underground parking.
"Their business with the city has nothing to do with my agency," Aisenstark said of Cordish and Brown. "It is not a conflict of interest."
He added that he wasn't working directly for the developers, but indirectly for their committee. "I was hired by their lawyer to do some research," he said.
As director of the city's ethics board, Aisenstark advises city officials on matters such as whether they can receive gifts from developers.
Several development firms are funding a referendum drive in Baltimore County that would put recent zoning decisions in two council districts on the ballot. The two council members — Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat, and Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat — say the developers are targeting their districts because they are unhappy with zoning decisions that would benefit their competition.
Green Spring Station owners argue, for instance, that a decision by Almond hurt their ability to renovate buildings on their site.
Developers and shopping-center owners have contributed more than $225,000 to the effort to challenge the zoning decisions. The backers have paid consultants, lawyers and others in hopes of putting zoning decisions in the two districts on the 2014 ballot.
The hearing Wednesday focused on whether names of those who have signed the referendum petition should be released publicly. A Baltimore County circuit judge ruled that they should.
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Both Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young declined to comment specifically on Aisenstark's private legal work.
"Mr. Aisenstark is not an employee of the Executive Branch of city government, is not appointed by the Mayor, and doesn't answer to the Mayor or any executive branch agency because the Department of Legislative Reference exists to facilitate the legislative function of City government," Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for the mayor, said in a statement. Young's office had no comment.
Aisenstark oversees employees who are charged with collecting and maintaining the financial disclosure forms filed by city officials. In February, The Baltimore Sun reported that the forms are rarely checked, and a comprehensive review of the forms had not been done in at least eight years. When they were reviewed this year at the behest of ethics board members, more than half of the 1,900 forms were found to have been filled out incorrectly or not at all.
Aisenstark spoke with The Sun Thursday after the ethics board met in a closed session that was not announced to the public. He would not say what the meeting was about, but said the Open Meetings Act did not apply because the board was meeting as part of an "administrative" function.
Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.