Thick Bureaucracy, Thin Skin
The Sun see conflict of interest where Aisenstark sees business as usual
Published: November 21, 2012
Avery Aisenstark is under pressure. Asked how he’s doing on the morning of Nov. 14, he replies, “Not well. Did you see the Sun editorial this morning?”
City Hall watchers (Sun readers, at least) have seen a series of stories questioning Aisenstark’s ethics in mixing his official duties as director of Legislative Reference, a key position in City Hall bureaucracy, with private legal work that, The Sun suggests, could present a conflict of interest. The questions have been more pointed for the fact that Aisenstark also serves as staff to the city’s Ethics Board and for the revelation that the board in charge of hiring and firing him for that position has not met in many years, leading The Sun to suggest in an editorial that he is “accountable to [no one].”
Since 1996 Aisenstark has been the director of Legislative Reference, a sprawling office on the sixth floor of City Hall where bills are drafted, the city code is amended, and even the city charter is altered to match the will of the people and its political representatives. Aisenstark earns $94,000 per year to oversee a staff of four people who do most of the scutt work needed to maintain the rule of law, and he answers every day to the City Council members and mayoral staffers who ask him to draft their bills.
Aside from his duties in Legislative Reference, Aisenstark also serves as staff to the Ethics Board, which meets regularly to adjudicate complaints about various city officials. “So I do wear two hats,” Aisenstark says. “But the ethics board does supervise me. They’re my boss. I’m their staff. They make the decisions, not me.”
Aisenstark’s alleged ethical transgression is this: To supplement his other jobs, he hired himself out to assist attorney Stuart Kaplow, who in turn was serving as counsel to a nonprofit called the Committee for Zoning Integrity, an astroturf-y pro-development group which is, in turn, funded all or in part by developers Howard Brown and David Cordish. On Oct. 31 Aisenstark appeared in court, as a spectator, as a motion was argued in a case filed by the Committee for Zoning Integrity against the Baltimore County Board of Elections. The matter at issue was whether the board should release the petition sheets collected by the committee. It was basically a First Amendment case. The Sun’s county court reporter recognized him. “My mistake was going to the hearing,” Aisenstark says. “I went out of prurient interest. That was stupid. She asked why I was there and I told the truth.”
On Nov. 14 The Sun editorialized: “He insists that he did nothing illegal or unethical, but some outside watchdogs are calling for him to be fired. This should be handled the same way it would be for any other city employee: through a formal inquiry by the Board of Ethics. But whether he is exonerated or reprimanded, the city needs to reconsider the unique structure of his job that calls for him to serve too many masters while being truly accountable to none.”
Now, it seems, Aisenstark is accountable to everyone.
What’s more, he says he not only agrees that the Ethics Board should look at the case, he asked them to before the Sun did—and told The Sun’s editorial writer he did so. “I think they have an agenda,” Aisenstark says of The Sun: “[They think] nobody who works for the city can have any outside business because something might come up.”
Aisenstark’s separate jobs have sewn confusion, which The Sun did not dissipate. A headline in the Nov. 12 paper said “Ethics Oversight Board Hasn’t Met in Years,” but the story was about the Board of Legislative Reference, which has never met all that often because it doesn’t have much business.
“The Board of Legislative Reference is not designed to be an ethics oversight board,” says City Councilman Bill Henry (4th District). “Its job is to select a new director of legislative reference and set policy for the city’s legislative library and archives. I don’t remember that board meeting during Buzz Murphy’s tenure [as director of legislative reference] either.”
Some at City Hall say the misleading Sun headline indicates the issue has been blown out of proportion. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who chairs the Board of Legislative Reference, declined to call a meeting of that board, kicking the issue to City Council president Bernard C. “Jack” Young, who has pledged to name a council member to that board.
“We have not seen a reason to call to remove him,” says Ryan O’Doherty, spokesperson for Rawlings-Blake. “If we did, we would gather the board. And that’s what the law says. He is independent. He is not someone that mayor can remove.”
Aisenstark’s explanation as to why his outside work is not an ethical conflict is neatly legal, as befitting a man who spends his life in the legal weeds as a legislative draftsman. Committee for Zoning Integrity has no business before the Department of Legislative Reference. No one associated with that nonprofit has anything pending before the Ethics Board either.
“Under that, there is no violation of the ethics code,” Aisenstark says. “So [The Sun] called in some talking heads who don’t know the law of Baltimore City. Common Cause was quoted and another guy from the University of Baltimore.” Aisenstark says he subsequently contacted Fred Guy, the University of Baltimore ethicist, and “he admits he wasn’t told the facts in the case.”
Guy says the same to City Paper. But in an email he stands by his original quote: “I have no reason to doubt that Mr. Aisenstark is an honest and honorable man, but I still believe that his work for the developers’ committee could be seen by the general public as a possible conflict of interest. I take this position regardless of whether we are talking about Mr. Aisenstark or any other public official.”
It’s a point Aisenstark has trouble seeing, as the gap between legal and ethical appears to be, in his mind, rather small. But Aisenstark does agree that wearing two hats is not ideal public policy. He says he wishes the city had the money to hire a separate ethics staffer. “I have been saying for years that the ethics board should be the one to hire and fire its own staff,” he says. “But I don’t want to be the poster boy.”
Broadwater says that, far from crusading, the story “fell into my lap,” and he scoffs at the idea that he—or the newspaper—has any agenda outside of printing the news. “When I asked Avery about it he became extremely angry,” Broadwater says. “He told me I was on his shit list. . . . I basically let him yell at me for a couple of hours.”
Broadwater says he wrote the stories because that’s his job: “Our job is to inform. This guy has other interests. They might be legal other interests, but people have a right to know that he has a side business.”
> Email Edward Ericson Jr.