Living dangerously in Annapolis, and then some

October 31, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

OVER THE LAST few months, the Ehrlich administration has been preparing to put 836 acres in Southern Maryland in the hands of a "benefactor" who turns out to be one of Maryland's leading businessmen and a major contributor to political campaigns.

The once-secret deal, now threatened with death by disclosure, moved forward under the banner of land preservation. Closer scrutiny led some to believe it would allow more sprawl. It looked like tribute for a political insider.

Is this what Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. had in mind when he urged Maryland businessmen to start helping their friends and punishing their enemies?

Almost no one would oppose putting this land out of reach of developers. But why not do it in the open? Even if everything about it is pure as the driven snow, secrecy raises concerns.

The benefactor turns out to be Willard J. Hackerman, a Baltimore builder whose work includes the Baltimore Convention Center, the National Aquarium in Baltimore and Harborplace.

Mr. Hackerman has been a contributor to political campaigns -- and an equally active contributor to worthy causes. He was a problem-solver for Comptroller William Donald Schaefer when Mr. Schaefer was mayor of Baltimore. His company, Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., rescued the mayor from a major embarrassment -- a costly experimental incinerator. And he once plunked down $1 million to buy a historic house in Mount Vernon in Baltimore so it could become part of the Walters Art Museum. So, was the land deal a major thank-you?

One of Governor Ehrlich's men told a legislative committee recently that Mr. Hackerman came to the state asking if there was land for sale. (Mr. Hackerman has been unavailable to answer reporters' questions.) The 836 acres in St. Mary's County were chosen. The state would buy the land from a conservancy for $2.5 million -- with the intent of immediately selling it to Mr. Hackerman for that same price. The figure is thought to be below market price, but no appraisals were done until analysts for legislators intervened. It's an important detail because the concept of "buy low, sell high" comes into play. If the land has gone up in price, if it can be resold at a profit or re-zoned to allow more houses, for example, the value soars.

State officials concede the proposed deal did not specifically preclude development. Depending on precisely what is done with the 836 acres, a combination of federal and Maryland tax advantages are estimated at as much as $7 million. Unless the deal involves land that was truly in danger of development, the tax break might not be there. That's why the arrangement appeared to be based on a promise and a handshake. If it was structured to create a tax advantage, says Warren G. Deschenaux, head of the Office of Policy Analysis, "the Internal Revenue Service will come down on you like a ton of bricks."

The state has suggested detours from process pass the smell test because the buyer is a "benefactor." A benefactor to whom, in this case? Mr. Ehrlich? Comptroller Schaefer? Himself?

The questions keep coming. Was a deal like this one available to anyone else? Are there any other Ehrlich or Schaefer contributors who'd like a similar deal? Where does the line form? Is there a threshold qualification: a campaign contribution, for example? How much of a contribution? Would the benefactor be expected to withhold contributions to candidates opposing the governor or his Republican friends? Are Maryland's racetrack owners benefactors? They're campaign contributors. What sort of favor are they expecting? Would the legalization of slots at the tracks be sufficient?

The St. Mary's plan unfolded while other Maryland businessmen, members of the state chamber of commerce, were proceeding with acting on Mr. Ehrlich's suggestion to help their friends and punish their enemies. If legislators don't achieve the appropriate score on the chamber's legislative wish list, the group might withhold campaign contributions.

So now the chamber must find a "Get Dangerous" logo. Nike has the swoosh; Maryland business will have, what? A skull and crossbones? Who's doing the chamber's PR?

Politicians and campaign contributors are always dancing along the line between support of the democratic process and buying support in the councils of government. When the nexus is too close, both sides in the equation are headed for ... danger.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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