The Maryland Stadium Authority fired executive director Alison L. Asti yesterday, just one day after the state attorney general's office said it would not recommend approval of a $400,000 settlement reached last week between Asti and the authority.
The move represented a drastic twist in a saga that seemed to end last week with all parties satisfied.
The authority voted, 4-2, to remove Asti as executive director and as general counsel. That's key because her contract said that if she was removed as director, she would remain as the agency's top attorney.
A dispute over the validity of that clause is likely to carry the matter to court.
"The board looked at the situation and decided that it was, at its essence, a legal matter to decide whether her contract was valid or not," chairman Frederick W. Puddester said. "The attorney general's office has advised that they think the contract is invalid."
When asked why Asti was fired, Puddester said, "We're looking for a change in the organization."
Asti was terribly disappointed by the firing, said her attorney, Andrew D. Levy of Baltimore's Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP.
"We thought the agreement we reached with the board was a fair one in which both sides gave up some things," he said.
When asked about legal action against the state, he said, "I think it's likely we won't be able to avoid that."
He added that he has seen a memorandum outlining the attorney general's qualms with Asti's contract, and "I saw nothing there that struck me as a winning argument."
In a letter to Puddester dated Sept. 13 and obtained by The Sun, deputy attorney general John B. Howard outlined several reasons why the contract was invalid. He wrote that under Maryland case law, Asti should not have been the agency's executive director and general counsel at the same time (an opinion obtained by Asti from the State Ethics Commission in May didn't find an ethical problem with her holding both positions).
Howard added that an executive branch of state government should not have given an attorney a multiyear contract under which she could only be removed "for cause" and that the stadium authority should not have awarded Asti a contract longer than the tenures of a majority of its members.
He also said the contract, which was negotiated by former authority chairman Herbert Belgrad in 2004, should have been approved by the attorney general.
Dennis Mather, one of two authority members who voted against Asti's removal, said she'll find justice in court.
"I think she'll get more," he said, referring to the $400,000 settlement. "I think she should get more. At the end of the day, whatever is right will come out in court."
Hours after the settlement was approved Sept. 19, Howard, the deputy attorney general, wrote in an e-mail to authority members that his office "was comfortable with recommending a settlement in the amount of $257,070," but that the Board of Public Works would not approve a higher amount.
In a Sept. 20 reply, Mather wrote, "I will not vote to dismiss Alison for one dime less, therefore, while you have the right to do what you see fit - be assured our resolve is to do the right thing."
He added: "Let's do the right thing and end this embarrassing circus."
David Raith will serve as interim executive director while the authority searches for a permanent replacement.
The attorney general's office said Wednesday that the settlement, unanimously agreed to by the stadium authority, was not in the best interests of the state. Without that recommendation, the deal couldn't be considered by the Board of Public Works, said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office.
Asti agreed to resign only if her settlement was approved by the Board of Public Works, which consists of the governor, the comptroller and the state treasurer.
Levy wrote in a letter to Puddester on Wednesday that he does not believe the stadium authority needed the attorney general's approval to strike a deal with Asti.
He said that the policy cited by the attorney general's office "clearly applies only to the settlement of lawsuits, not to the decision of an independent agency to enter into an agreement with an employee."
Levy said yesterday that the attorney general's actions amounted to a veto of the stadium authority.
Puddester said his understanding was any settlement of more than $10,000 had to be approved by the Board of Public Works. He said he did not feel the authority was undermined by the actions of the attorney general's office.
Mather said he also was led to believe the attorney general had the right not to recommend Asti's settlement.
"But I think it's a shame the board worked three hours to approve a deal in that case," he added.
Several other board members deferred comment to Puddester after yesterday's closed meeting. A spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley said he had no comment on Asti's firing.
In his letter, Levy detailed the history of settlement negotiations, noting that Puddester and the attorney general's office refused to discuss the matter for most of July and August and were unresponsive to counteroffers once discussions began.
"With all due respect Fred," he wrote, "this is not how reasonable people negotiate."
$400,000 or more
Levy said that $400,000 seemed a reasonable settlement, given that Asti's contract, which ran through 2010, was worth at least $1 million.
He said that if Asti takes legal action, she's likely to seek the full value of her contract or perhaps more on the grounds that she was fired illegally.
Levy pointed out in the letter that Asti's settlement was inferior to one recently reached by F. Brooks Royster III, the executive director of the Port Administration. The state gave Royster a full year of salary and the value of his health benefits, reimbursed his legal fees and waived a noncompete clause in his contract. Levy said that if money for untaken leave and legal fees were subtracted from Asti's $400,000 settlement, she would be left with less than a year's salary.
Asti has said O'Malley wanted her pushed out for political reasons. She has cited a history of tension between her and the attorney general's office as a possible explanation.
"Certainly, we've never been given a reason for them asking her to leave," Levy said. "I'm in the dark. Alison's in the dark."