When a new downtown football stadium opened nine years ago, the latest project of the Maryland Stadium Authority was widely praised.
In just more than a decade of existence, the quasi-public agency had built an acclaimed baseball park and a new convention center for downtown Baltimore, attracted the NFL back to the city after a 12-year absence and erected a new home for that team.
FOR THE RECORD - A caption in yesterday's Sports section incorrectly said that new Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman Fred Puddester will be leaving his position at the Johns Hopkins University. Puddester will remain as a budget official at Hopkins.
The Sun regrets the error.
The agency took on some of the state's biggest projects and delivered results on time, on budget and generally to rave reviews.
But its reputation in recent years has been more mixed. The authority continues to build public facilities around the state and to receive positive reviews for the results. But legislative audits in 2004 and 2007 raised questions about the agency's control over its spending, and the second invited concerns from Gov. Martin O'Malley's office about the agency's direction. The authority has also fallen into several squabbles with one of its chief tenants, the Orioles.
A Sun review of thousands of pages of meeting minutes and other documents found that the agency has taken steps to document its business practices more fully and to bid most purchases competitively. A new chairman, Fred Puddester, will take over today with goals of earning a better audit next time, clarifying some management practices and improving relations with other government offices. He is one of many who see a bright future for the authority as an agency that can build anything the legislature wants.
Authority leaders say they've addressed most of the concerns. "We take exception to anybody's perception that this place needs reform," outgoing chairman Robert L. McKinney said.
But that has not prevented O'Malley from talking about change.
"The audit gives us an opportunity to stir things up on the stadium authority and put in new leadership," O'Malley said in February. "I can tell you we're aware that there are problems at the stadium authority, which is why I put someone of Fred Puddester's caliber and ability there."
Puddester, who was a longtime state budget official before he became executive director of budget and financial planning for Johns Hopkins, will take over as chairman. He said no one has given him a mandate to reform the agency.
"[The governor] asked me to go in and, as I would anyhow, assess the situation and make the necessary changes," Puddester said.
The authority, with $38 million in expenses in 2006, has faced criticism from legislators and auditors for:
Operating without defined procedures for awarding building contracts.
Paying $42,000 for less than an hour of work from a former director who left under an ethics cloud.
Handing a $104,000 severance package to an executive with only 15 months of service time.
Paying more than $100,000 for Baltimore attorney William H. Murphy to look into a lawsuit against Major League Baseball instead of using the attorney general's office.
The agency is also headed for arbitration with the Orioles over the purchase of a new video board at Camden Yards.
Authority leaders say they've tightened operations in recent years and add that they did nothing illegal or unethical in awarding the severances or hiring Murphy.
"We feel we've been unfairly beaten about the ears," McKinney said. "We think this is a well-managed agency and that there have been a lot of unfair characterizations. I think most lawmakers understand what we've done and why we've done it."
In a vote of confidence, the board awarded executive director Alison Asti a $15,000 bonus a month after the second critical audit emerged in February. That came on top of a $225,000 salary that makes her one of the highest-paid state employees in Maryland.
"Keep in mind that we hired Alison at a very critical juncture for the agency," McKinney said. "We had just received an audit, and we had experienced the parting of ways with our director. She did a sensational job of keeping morale up, keeping the organization moving."
The state's auditor, Bruce A. Myers, said that the 2007 audit found that only one of the 14 findings in the 2004 audit was not fixed, which demonstrates improvement. And none of the audit findings was enough for Myers to brand the authority "unsatisfactory," a designation that triggers an automatic six month follow-up and a hearing before the joint audit committee.
But critics say the overall picture suggests a need for reform.
O'Malley's chief of staff, Michael Enright, said the two audits, especially the second one, have caused concern within the governor's administration.
"One audit with some negative findings - you can cope with that," said Enright, a former board member at the stadium authority. "But when you have a second audit that comes out with similar stuff - that's worrisome."
Some legislators were also upset by embarrassing management issues in the two audits, said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., a St. Mary's County Democrat who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the authority.