After a lengthy investigation, Baltimore County’s Inspector General Kelly Madigan released a report with some startling findings:
A longtime county official illegally waived millions of dollars in fees and securities for the Metro Centre at Owings Mills project, benefiting its high-profile developer, David S. Brown Enterprises, Ltd.
The report traces the special arrangement back to 2011 and includes emails showing how the company’s chairman, Howard S. Brown, gave the official free parking and access to hard-to-get seats at NCAA Big Ten Conference tournament basketball games on a yearly basis.
“It’s that time of year again,” a staffer says, offering up tickets to the 2017 game at Madison Square Garden in New York. “I’m going to arrange for our driver to deliver your game tickets.”
“Just a note to let Howard know I do want those 6 tickets to the Big Ten tourney!” Arnold E. Jablon, director of the Department of Permits, Approvals and Inspections (PAI), writes in 2018, ahead of the next year’s game.
Equally striking, however, were some of the other findings:
• The current administration of County Executive Johnny Olszewski has known for years about the arrangement, which continued after Jablon left.
• Internal efforts to end the waivers were repeatedly rebuffed by top Olszewski administration officials.
• Even after being told by the IG that the pact violated County Code, the administration plans to continue waiving the fees for the current phase of construction.
“We inherited this agreement, which had been in place for several years prior to our administration taking office,” wrote County Administrative Officer Stacy L. Rodgers, in the administration’s response last week to the IG’s report.
”As such,” she continued, “it was appropriate for the agreement to remain in place.”
”We inherited this agreement. . . [and] it was appropriate for the agreement to remain in place” – Baltimore County Administrative Officer Stacy Rodgers.
The agreement to which she refers was made by Jablon, during the administration of the late County Executive Kevin Kamenetz.
From 2005 through 2010, under the previous administration of County Executive James Smith, the County “appropriately collected” the fees and securities for the project, the report said.
The waivers began in 2011, soon after Kamenetz named Jablon, a private attorney who had previously held top county government jobs for decades, to head the department.
At Jablon’s direction, the report says, Brown was given lucrative breaks on the inspection fees for hundreds of utility and right-of-way agreements for the project and was excused from having to post performance securities.
At one point, again thanks to Jablon, the developer got back security he had posted in the amount of $206,125.
“There are no provisions in the County Code that permit these securities to be waived,” Madigan’s report states.
Also wiped away at Jablon’s direction were fees for electrical, plumbing and other inspections – an action the IG determined had never been approved by the County Administrative Officer, as required under the County Code.
“Waived per AJ, 6/14/11” is handwritten on one of the fee waiver memos that Madigan found.
“No fee” and “no fee collect per Arnold Jablon 6/14/11” are scrawled on another.
The arrangement, which the report said deprived county taxpayers of hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenues, lasted through three county executives – and, it appears, will continue under the Olszewski regime for new construction that is still underway.
“We have sought to honor agreements made by prior administrations,” Rodgers informed Madigan in her written response.
The Brew undertook a closer look at what the report says about the pact between the two men and the current county government’s continued support for it.
In and Out of Government
The sprawling Metro Centre project, located next to the Owings Mills Metro Station, includes restaurants, apartments, a county library branch and a Marriott hotel and is slated to become the region’s biggest transit-oriented-development.
Proceeding in fits and starts, the heavily subsidized development took shape on a parcel of state-owned land in 2005, but was conceived back in the 1990s.
Jablon and Brown go back even further.
Jablon started in county government in the 1970s, serving in multiple positions – attorney for the school board, zoning commissioner, county attorney and, finally, director of permits and development management.
By the time he retired in 2003 after 25 years in county government – to take a job as a private lawyer with present-day Venable LLC, Jablon had already worked for five county executives.
Community activists, who considered his actions highhanded and pro-developer, were glad to see him go, but in the incestuous world of county development, still wary.
“Every time you think he is finally gone, he simply re-emerges in a more insidious way,” one remarked at the time.
Jablon is quoted laughing it off: “I thought people would be happy I was leaving.”
As it happened, his new employer, Venable, represented David S. Brown Enterprises on the Metro Centre project.
Jablon was a county attorney for 25 years and five administrations before joining the powerhouse law firm Venable LLC.
In 2011 when Jablon returned to county government under Kamenetz, he was given the key role of gatekeeper in county development.
Since leaving the county a second time in 2018 to return to private practice, he has remained active in political circles, serving, for instance, as the current campaign treasurer for Maryland House Speaker Adrienne Jones.
Jablon refused requests to be interviewed by Madigan’s office, the report said.
He could not be reached by The Brew.
Phone calls to his home following the release of the report did not go through, clicking off after a ring or two, making it impossible to leave a message. A Venable receptionist said there was no attorney listed by his name.
Big Developer, Big Donor
The developer at the center of the controversy has an even longer history in the county.
Chairman Howard Brown’s father, David S. Brown, started in the 1930s as a builder and developer of shopping centers and apartments. In 1973, Howard Brown created a new company, named after his father, that went on to become one of the biggest development firms in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Company projects include Lockwood Place at 600 E. Pratt St., Perry Hall Shopping Center, Honeygo Square in White Marsh and Arcadia Square in Ellicott City.
Also included in its portfolio are several multi-family projects, including Symphony Center in Mount Vernon.
Yet another project is a stalled development on the site of the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore’s central business district, which Brown demolished in 2015.
A philanthropist, Howard Brown has made multiple charitable gifts, including more than $6 million to the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
He has also been a generous source of campaign funds for local politicians for decades.
A review of contributions made since 2005 – by Brown and his company, family members, associated corporate entities and the David S. Brown Enterprises Political Action Committee – documented $19,750 contributions to Olszewski, more than $6,300 to Baltimore County Council Chair Julian Jones, and at least $52,000 to Kamenetz.
Matt Schoenfeld, general counsel for David S. Brown Enterprises and Howard Brown’s son-in-law, declined The Brew’s request for comment following the release of the IG report.
Emails included in the IG’s report document Jablon’s hands-off directives, among them a 2014 memo to “engineering assistants,” notifying them that “Arnold Jablon has instructed that all building permit fees shall be waived.”
That memo affected over 80 building permits for Metro Centre work, excusing the company from individual fees ranging from $48 to $36,012, the IG’s report stated.
A key document cited in the report is dated June 12, 2018, a month after Kamenetz’s sudden death while in office.
The unsigned internal memo, the report says, was authored by Jablon but uses language provided by the developer’s attorney, Venable.
“Letter is good. Julie, please reduce this to my letterhead,” Jablon wrote back to the Venable attorney, copying his assistant.
The County Administrative Officer at the time, Fred Homan, told the IG through his attorney that he knew nothing about the memo.
Directive from Olszewski Aide
By 2019, Jablon had left county government and Olszewski had taken office. Into Jablon’s former role stepped Michael Mallinoff, a former Charles County administrator, who “did not believe his predecessor had the authority to waive securities and fees,” the report said.
After Mallinoff informed the developer that the waivers were to be discontinued, Howard Brown pushed back.
At a restaurant meeting with Mallinoff (with a Venable attorney in attendance), Brown referenced his prior agreement with Jablon and promised that the company would “self-perform” inspections through a third-party contractor.
Around the same time, a member of the Olszewski administration (unnamed in the IG’s report) contacted Mallinoff about his opposition to the waivers, telling him the arrangement with Brown “pre-dated the current administration and, therefore, needed to be honored.”
Jablon’s successor tried to end the waivers, but was getting resistance from the developer and the Olszewski administration – IG report.
Mallinoff continued from October 2019 to September 2020 to try to collect the securities and fees, “not comfortable that the only support for the waiver was an unsigned memo,” the report says. He persisted “despite getting resistance from the developer and, at times, the administration.”
Andrew G. “Drew” Vetter, deputy county administrative officer, was among those enforcing the developer agreement.
After Mallinoff questioned a plumbing fee waiver, for example, Kristin King in the Office of Community Engagement informed him it had blessing from on high:
“Drew said that this administration has previously agreed to uphold the prior administration’s arrangement regarding Metro Center,” King told Mallinoff.
“So, a plumbing fee waiver it is!” she exclaimed.
“It seems odd that we will be sending multiple inspectors to this site several hundred times and not getting anything from it” – Lee Jolley, chief electrical inspector.
Mallinoff and others expressed concern that Brown was not self-performing the inspections, as promised, because the third-party contractor was too expensive, according to the report. This left the county government to foot the bill.
“With our budget the way it is, it seems odd that we will be sending multiple inspectors to this site several hundred times and not getting anything from it,” chief electrical inspector Lee Jolley wrote, in a memo to higher-ups.
In 2021, C. Pete Gutwald replaced Mallinoff as permits director and suspended the waivers, citing an opinion from the law department that only the Chief administrative officer could authorize such waivers.
CAO Rodgers soon put an end to that objection. Last September 21, she sent a letter to the developer formally waiving them.
It said that Brown will not have to pay a fee for any inspections required as part of the ongoing construction at his Metro Centre project under the plan approved in 2005. (Upgrades or modifications to already-constructed buildings will be subject to the fees, the letter said.)
The requirement to post securities, meant to ensure proper completion of a project, will only apply to future phases of the project, Rodgers explained, in her response to the IG report.
Violation of County Code
The IG report documents favors Jablon received from Brown’s company, including free access to a private residential parking garage in Pikesville owned by the developer.
There were also discussions about making improvements to another one of Brown’s garages to make it “more suitable to Jablon’s needs,” the report says.
Brown confirmed to the IG that he let Jablon use the parking spaces for free.
Jablon also received access to Brown’s tickets to the annual Big Ten basketball tournament.
Brown told the IG that Jablon “paid him face value for the tickets on several occasions,” the report said, further noting that Brown remarked that the tickets were “priority seats” and commented, “You can’t get those.”
The report raises the possibility that Jablon would not have been able to obtain the VIP tickets and perks without Brown’s access.
Emails obtained by the IG show extensive discussions between Jablon and the developer’s staff about ticket availability, seat upgrades, access to pre-game parties and plans to attend the tournaments with others, including an attorney from Venable, LLP.
“We prefer the lower level! If you can, ask again if Md will have a hospitality area,” Jablon wrote in a 2017 email. “Perhaps this year because it’s at the Verizon Center, there will be something,”
“It isn’t looking very promising that there will be anything ‘special’ that we will be able to get you access to other than possibly the pregame event,” came a reply from the development company.
Jablon’s arrangement with Brown “appear[s] to violate the Solicitation or Acceptance of Gifts provision of the County Code” – IG report.
Emails also show there was an offer to have Jablon attend 2018 games in New York as Brown’s guest and for him to stay in Brown’s Manhattan apartment.
Jablon expresses interest – joking, “Can I stay in his spare bedroom? Closet?” – but ultimately cancels when he can’t find others to go with him.
The report notes that there are instances where the developer’s request for assistance appears in the same email as discussion of favors being offered to Jablon.
“While there is no indication that any of Brown’s requests for assistance were directly connected to any of the potential benefits provided to Jablon,” the report concludes, “the communications about the parking and the basketball tickets create the appearance of a conflict of interest.”
In her letter presenting the report to the Olszewski administration, Madigan says Jablon’s dealings with Brown arguably crossed a line.
“The waiver of Securities and Fees was in effect at a time when Jablon was receiving certain benefits from the Developer that appear to violate the Solicitation or Acceptance of Gifts provision of the County Code,” the report states.
In her official response to the report, Rodgers does not address this matter.
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