State throws a curve at Asti's settlement

The Baltimore Sun

The state attorney general's office will not recommend approval of a settlement reached last week between the Maryland Stadium Authority and its executive director, Alison L. Asti, who agreed to resign if the deal were approved by the Board of Public Works.

Without the recommendation, the agreement cannot be considered by the Board of Public Works, said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office.

The decision imperils the settlement, which seemed to signal the end of a tense period at the authority, where Asti's job status was a source of constant speculation. It's now unclear whether Asti will remain in her role. The authority is expected to discuss the matter in a closed session this afternoon.

"Our responsibility as an independent party is to weigh whether or not a deal is in the best interest of the state," Guillory said. "And, in this case, we didn't think it was."

She said she couldn't comment more specifically on why the deal was rejected because the terms are a personnel matter.

Asti settled for $400,000, including $63,000 for unused vacation, said her attorney, Andrew D. Levy of Baltimore's Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP. Levy said deputy attorney general John B. Howard told him in an e-mail that his office would accept $257,000 as a settlement figure.

Levy questioned why the attorney general's office would be the agency to decide the appropriate sum.

"I can't imagine what the legal reason would be for refusing to recommend it," he said. "It's a policy difference, not a legal difference. And I see no basis for the attorney general's office to second guess the [stadium authority] on a matter of policy."

Christine Hansen, a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, said the decision does not undermine the stadium authority. She deferred all other comment to the attorney general's office.

Levy said he and Asti were "disappointed and surprised" by the decision and added Asti still hopes the stadium authority will honor the settlement. Asti, reached yesterday afternoon, deferred comment to Levy.

Authority chairman Frederick W. Puddester did not return calls yesterday. But board member Howard M. Stevens Jr. posed a question: "Why have a board if our unanimous votes are not going to be honored?" he asked. "That tells me that I spent three hours in a meeting last week for no reason."

Terms of Asti's deal were not immediately disclosed after last week's meeting. Howard sat in on the three-hour closed session, after which the authority's board unanimously approved Asti's settlement.

As executive director, Asti serves at the pleasure of the governor and the authority's board. But as the agency's general counsel, she has a contract that extends through 2010. The contract guarantees that if she is removed as executive director, she will remain the agency's top attorney. The stadium authority agreed to the settlement so Asti could leave without losing all of the money guaranteed by her contract.

Levy said Asti's contract is worth at least $1 million, considering her $257,000 annual salary, options to defer another $50,000 a year for tax purposes and health benefits.

If another settlement can't be reached, the matter could head to court.

"If the case ends up in litigation, it's not because Alison wanted it," Levy said. "It's would be because they left her no choice."

Under state policy, an assistant attorney general must review any settlement greater than $10,000 and prepare a review and recommendation for the Board of Public Works. It's not clear from the language of the policy what grounds the attorney general can cite when rejecting a settlement agreement.

Asti said last week that O'Malley had pushed for her removal for political reasons. She and her supporters noted a history of tension between Asti and the office of former attorney general J. Joseph Curran Jr., O'Malley's father-in-law.

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, Curran opposed the move, saying 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.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese dismissed Asti's allegations of a political grudge as groundless.

Puddester, who was appointed by O'Malley, said last week 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."

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