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Asti quits as director of stadium authority

The Baltimore Sun

After suggesting that Gov. Martin O'Malley was pushing her out for political reasons, Alison L. Asti resigned yesterday as executive director and general counsel for the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Asti said she was satisfied with the settlement agreement she negotiated with the agency's board but did not back away from an earlier written statement that she was "disappointed that the MSA board has been asked to attempt to invalidate my contract for what can only be political reasons."

After the board accepted her resignation, she said, "Nothing was ever suggested to me about the quality of my performance."

Authority chairman Frederick W. Puddester, who was appointed by O'Malley, said he was not ordered to remove Asti but said he could not discuss the reasons for her departure because it was a personnel matter.

"The whole idea is to look forward," he said. "We're just making a change."

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said he had no comment on Asti's resignation but again dismissed arguments that the governor bore her a political grudge.

"She's produced no credible evidence that that's the case," Abbruzzese said.

Terms of the settlement were not released yesterday, though Asti's attorney, Andrew D. Levy of Baltimore's Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP, said details would be released no later than next week. The Board of Public Works will have to approve the settlement for it to become final.

The authority's seven-member board voted unanimously to accept Asti's resignation, though some members defended her performance.

"It was all a mutual agreement," said one of her advocates, Dennis B. Mather. "I think we reached our goal."

Mather had said for weeks that O'Malley had every right to remove Asti but that her contract should be honored. The board met for almost three hours in closed session yesterday as it hammered out Asti's settlement.

"There was a lot of discussion," Puddester said of the meeting. "I wouldn't characterize it as dispute. There was a lot of spirited discussion."

Board member Howard M. Stevens Jr., another Asti supporter, said the settlement was fair but said he never heard a good reason she needed to go.

"By the same token, her position is at the pleasure [of the governor,]" he said. "So I don't know that I needed a reason."

The executive director oversees day-to-day operations for an agency that has built Baltimore's baseball and football stadiums, the Hippodrome and the city's convention center. The authority also serves as landlord for the Orioles and Ravens and is scheduled to go to arbitration with the Orioles this fall in a dispute over which party should pay for a new video board at Camden Yards.

Asti and her predecessors have generally ranked among the state's highest paid employees with salaries of $200,000 and higher. Her contract ran through 2010.

The agency's chief financial officer, David A. Raith, will serve as an interim replacement for Asti, who has served as executive director since 2004 and has worked with the agency almost since its inception in the late 1980s. She is also president of the Maryland State Bar Association.

Puddester said the agency will perform a wide search for its new director and will "take as long as we need to find the right person."

Asti's removal had been expected since July, when Puddester took over as chairman of the authority. Asti said that early conversations with Puddester left her believing that O'Malley did not want her to continue in the job.

The authority faced scrutiny when a legislative audit released in February criticized it for paying $42,000 for less than an hour of work by a former director who left under an ethics cloud.

The authority also handed a $104,000 severance package to an executive with only 15 months of service time.

"The audit gives us an opportunity to stir things up on the stadium authority and put in new leadership," O'Malley said at the time.

But Asti does not believe the efforts to remove her had anything to do with the audit. She noted that most of the problems raised by the review occurred under her predecessor, Richard Slosson.

Asti's supporters say her dismissal can be traced in part to long-standing tensions between the stadium authority and the attorney general's office.

She wasn't that specific yesterday but said she believed she would be targeted before the audit was ever released.

"I had reason to believe my job was in jeopardy long before auditors set foot in the Maryland Stadium Authority," she said.

In her statement, Asti cited O'Malley's words about state employees: "We have one litmus test and one litmus test only, and that is, are you capable, are you committed, are you professional and are you the best person for the job."

"I believe I meet the criteria articulated by the governor," she wrote.

Asti began working with the authority as a private lawyer in 1987 and began representing the authority in 1990 as an assistant attorney general. In 1994, the agency hired her as its general counsel.

At that time, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., O'Malley's father-in-law, opposed the move, saying that his office should remain the authority's chief legal representative. Curran also said in a letter that Asti's hiring could hurt morale in his department because she would be paid more than his attorneys.

Tension resurfaced between the authority and Curran's office in 2005, when the agency paid more than $100,000 to outside attorney William H. Murphy Jr. for work the attorney general's office said it could perform.

Though Curran is retired, two of his former attorneys, Michael R. Enright and Ralph S. Tyler III, are among O'Malley's close advisers.

Abbruzzese dismissed as "groundless" the idea that any move to fire Asti could be traced to her relations with Curran's office.

Asti had said all along that she did not want to leave the authority but acknowledged that she was relieved to reach yesterday's settlement.

She hopes to start a sports consulting business to "help some other states do some of the great things we've done here."

"I'm not concerned at all about my future," she said, after sharing emotional farewells with several board members.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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