Common Cause questions city ethics director's fitness for job

Common Cause Maryland questioned Friday whether the city's ethics board director is fit for the job after he acknowledged that he was performing legal work on behalf of developers with business interests in Baltimore.

"This raises questions about his fitness for the job," said James Browning, regional director for Common Cause. "There are several serious problems here."

Avery Aisenstark is director of the city's department of legislative reference and its ethics board. He has come under fire from Common Cause for working on behalf of a group, called the Committee for Zoning Integrity, that is challenging some Baltimore County zoning decisions. 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.

Aisenstark, who runs a law firm called Avery Aisenstark LLC, attended a court hearing Wednesday in Towson related to the zoning fight. He said he was doing legal work for Stuart Kaplow, the attorney for the committee. Aisenstark said he took leave from work at City Hall to attend the hearing. He said the developers do not have business with his city agency, and his work does not represent a conflict of interest.

But Browning said Aisenstark's actions show it's clear that "there's no one supervising him or holding him accountable."

Under the city charter, Aisenstark, a city employee since 1993, reports to the seven-member Board of Legislative Reference, composed of the mayor, city solicitor, president of the Johns Hopkins University, the deans of the University of Maryland and University of Baltimore schools of law, the director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and a member of the City Council.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, said Friday he was not sure which council member sits on the board or even whether the board still meets.

Aisenstark declined to comment Friday.

Cordish and Brown have both sought city approvals in connection with their business interests in recent years. For instance, Cordish 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 residential towers, retail space and underground parking.

Aisenstark, who earns $94,000 a year, frequently advises city elected officials on ethical matters, such as whether they can accept 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.

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.

Linda "Lu" Pierson, who chairs the city's ethics board, did not respond to a request for comment.

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