As a prominent developer sought to have Baltimore County zoning staff quickly approve his plan for an indoor “tennis barn” next to his Greenspring Valley house, top aides to County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. intervened on his behalf.
The developer, David Cordish, had hit a roadblock: The county’s professional staff denied him a zoning permit last year, insisting on a hearing first and the consent of an administrative law judge. But after Olszewski’s aides intervened, Cordish’s plans won a key approval without the hearing.
The county’s inspector general is investigating the role of Olszewski’s aides in advancing the project, three sources with knowledge of the investigation told The Baltimore Sun.
Cordish never built the tennis barn. This summer, he scaled back his plans to a temporary “tennis bubble” he hoped could be erected more quickly, according to emails and documents The Sun obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request. The staff in the zoning office have reviewed that proposal and say it, too, needs a hearing before approval.
Olszewski said in an interview that his office didn’t give preferential treatment to Cordish and any such suggestion would be “patently false.” He said he asked staff to “answer [Cordish’s] questions,” but was not involved in the project’s review and had “no opinion” on it.
“We provide the same level of service to all of our residents, regardless of the issue and regardless of who they are,” Olszewski said.
Inspector General Kelly Madigan declined to confirm or deny an investigation. Cordish is not the subject of the investigation by her office, which only reviews the actions of public employees and seeks to uncover fraud, waste and misconduct in government. It can issue reports with any findings about the work of county employees and recommendations to improve operations.
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Olszewski moved to curtail the powers of Madigan’s fledgling office this summer; he said in the interview that he wasn’t aware of the tennis barn investigation at that time.
The extent of Olszewski’s involvement in Cordish’s application isn’t clear. None of the emails are from Olszewski, although staffers refer to conversations between Olszewski and Cordish and note the county executive directed the developer to people in county government for help. An aide updated Olszewski via email about the project in October 2020.
Cordish, who declined to comment for this article, is the chair and CEO of The Cordish Cos., a Baltimore-based development and casino business. Its operations include Live Casino & Hotel at Arundel Mills, and the firm is known for redeveloping part of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor in 2001 to create Power Plant Live.
Cordish applied in September 2020 for permits to build an 18,000-square-foot tennis barn. It was to be 35 feet tall — twice the size of his house — and have two courts and an observation gallery.
He pestered county staff for approval, according to the emails The Sun obtained. He cited his age — now 81 — and suggested he and his grandkids wouldn’t be able to play by this winter if the county didn’t act quickly.
Staff in the Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections maintained the proposed building was too big to get their approval as an “accessory” structure to his house. Cordish would need to ask for an exception, known as a variance. That requires going before the administrative law judge. Opponents can testify against a proposal and a favorable outcome isn’t guaranteed.
Cordish pressed his case that his building permit should be approved outside that process. Michael Mallinoff, then the director of the permitting office, believed his staff was correct and didn’t want to sign off on it. Cordish went over his head, enlisting the support of Olzweski’s aides.
Amy Grossi was the county’s real estate compliance lawyer; while she wasn’t appointed by Olzweski, she worked at the discretion of the county executive. She sent Mallinoff a letter from one of Cordish’s attorneys, saying she agreed with it. It argued that county staff misinterpreted the law and the permit should be approved without a hearing, according to a November 2020 email.
But county staff held firm that the project required an exception, that it was their role to interpret the law and disputes over the law’s intent are addressed at administrative law hearings.
“I am not convinced. I do not feel comfortable signing off. I may need to delegate that to you,” Mallinoff wrote to Grossi on Nov. 24, 2020, adding “I think it will raise an eye or two.”
Under the Cordish attorney’s interpretation, few accessory structures would need an exception, Mallinoff told Grossi.
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Two of the sources told The Sun that Drew Vetter, Olszewski’s deputy county administrative officer, was the administration’s point man with developers to push forward certain projects. Emails show Vetter was involved in the discussion over the interpretation of zoning law as it applied to Cordish’s plans.
The project was consuming a lot of time, Vetter said in a Dec. 3, 2020, email. And a to-do list for Samantha O’Neil, a senior Olszewski adviser, showed working with Vetter to resolve the issue was her No. 3 priority for the week of Nov. 30, 2020.
Vetter said in an interview the administration referred Cordish’s questions and comments to the permits department, advising the department to “review and respond to the arguments raised” by his attorneys.
In a Nov. 30, 2020, email, Mallinoff discussed what he viewed as interference from above, contrasting the county with other places he’d worked. He previously served as the Charles County administrator and Annapolis city manager. He wrote to Grossi: “I cannot recall ever having to continually address special arrangements for certain people. Every week.”
Regarding issuing the permit, Mallinoff wrote to Grossi: “I had not made up my mind, but I am being directed by others who have, I believe, made up their minds regardless of the merits. Consequently, I was looking for a path, either that will keep the department from looking like a tool and/or a way to do this that is not subterfuge (nice word).”
By Dec. 16, 2020, the permit was approved. Documents show it was marked approved by Mallinoff “per Grossi and Vetter,” an unusual notation. The county’s professional inspectors typically initial approvals. Mallinoff wrote an email that day to staff, saying: “Please proceed per Ms. Grossi’s analysis and Mr. Vetter’s direction.”
It was the same date Cordish asked Vetter about Mallinoff: “Doesn’t MM report to u. He is dead wrong and his delay for weeks very unfair.”
Eight days later, the county said in a news release that Mallinoff was leaving. He declined to comment.
In January, Cordish was pressing Vetter and O’Neil for the last approvals he needed. “Gentleman and Lady, we are on one yard line. We desperately need to get started or lose our window to be complete for the coming Fall.”
Cordish’s executive assistant emailed county development manager Lloyd Moxley on Jan. 28, saying Olszewski suggested Moxley and Cordish talk as soon as possible. She put “County Exec Johnny O” in her subject line.
Moxley emailed his boss that he would recommend an agency outside of county government do a priority review of the soil conservation plan. “Typically the standard is.....the project proves some greater good. I’m not sure this rises to that BUT it seems Mr. Cordish has the (County Executive’s) support,” Moxley wrote.
However, Vetter informed Grossi the next day that he had decided to advise Olszewski against the expedited review.
On March 30, the soil conservation plan was approved. The only outstanding approval required was a stream easement and Cordish had agreed to provide one, emails show.
But in July, Cordish wrote to the county to say he was abandoning his idea in favor of a project he thought still could be built by this winter: the tennis bubble. He contended that because he had gotten approvals for the tennis barn, the county should approve building an inflatable, removable dome as something only slightly different.
“The plans for the permanent structure were processed through every department of Baltimore County with a positive approval to the point where we were in a position to pick up a final building permit,” Cordish wrote to the permitting office.
“From a zoning perspective, whether the bubble is considered temporary or permanent is obviously irrelevant given our previous approvals by the County,” Cordish said in the July email.
But with county now saying Cordish would have to apply for a variance for the tennis bubble that would require a hearing, Cordish was left to tell county staffers he didn’t understand “the possible change of mind of the County.”
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Vetter said his handling of Cordish was not unusual.
“The request for me was to review and respond to the arguments that were being made by the applicant, regardless of what the outcome was going to be,” Vetter said.
The Morning Sun
In his emails, Cordish wrote he had respected the process, but that it was “overzealous.”
Grossi left her job in July. She declined to comment.
Olszewski, a Democrat, created the inspector general’s office and appointed Madigan, a former prosecutor.
Her investigation of how the Cordish project was handled was underway in July when the county executive proposed legislation to establish an oversight panel to monitor Madigan’s office and to amend county law to restrict her access to records, the sources said.
Olszewski said he was motivated to make changes to the inspector general’s powers by the concerns of County Council members, who rebuked Madigan for what they alleged was an aggressive demeanor and overly broad access to records. Facing a backlash from citizens and anti-corruption advocates, Olszewski backed off. He’s since announced a commission that will make recommendations about possible changes to the inspector general’s office.
”I’m proud that we are just one of a few local jurisdictions that even have an IG,” Olszewski said.
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.