Ehrlich aides urged pursuing Hackerman bid

Developer's phone call led to land deal, official says

State staff questioned at hearing

December 01, 2004|By David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green | David Nitkin and Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Three top aides to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. encouraged the head of the state Department of General Services to explore a deal to sell preservation land to a politically connected contractor who promised to donate building rights there in exchange for tax breaks.

Involvement of the governor's office in the contentious St. Mary's County land deal is a growing concern among state lawmakers, who convened a hearing yesterday to discuss greater disclosure of how surplus real estate is identified, publicized and sold.

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, general services chief Boyd K. Rutherford said he received an unsolicited call early last year from Willard J. Hackerman, chief executive of the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., asking to buy land from the state. Rutherford called Ehrlich's chief of staff, Steven L. Kreseski, communications director Paul E. Schurick and former deputy chief of staff Edward F. McDonald for advice on how to proceed.

"They said, `See where it goes. Pursue it,'" Rutherford said, offering fresh details of how the deal to sell 836 acres of protected forest in St. Mary's County to Hackerman unfolded.

Rutherford said his office regularly receives inquiries from developers and others looking to buy state land. Hackerman, 86, got a face-to-face meeting because of his stature and reputation for philanthropy, Rutherford said.

The governor has repeatedly said he was unaware of the details of the St. Mary's land deal, and has not decided whether the state acting as a real estate broker for a prominent executive is good public policy.

Democratic critics have been raising pointed questions about the governor's knowledge of and involvement in the Southern Maryland land deal, which Hackerman abandoned last month in the face of criticism. Hackerman was to buy the land without fresh appraisals and without a bidding process, and for months state officials refused to disclose his name.

Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he met with Rutherford before yesterday's hearing to determine the impetus for the sale.

"I said, `Where is the pressure coming from for this activity?'" Franchot said. "He said, `I am a transactional agency; the pressure is coming from the second floor, from the governor's office.'"

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee which held the hearing, called the Hackerman deal an "anomaly" that revealed flaws in a previously well-regarded system for selling land. Those flaws were further illustrated, she said, by the subsequent disclosure of a list of 3,000 acres of parks and forest that could eventually be put up for sale.

"There are points in this process that are not clear," said McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat. "Any access [to land] lost or environmental protection lost is critical to our constituents."

Hackerman stood to receive a tax break of up to $7 million if he preserved the land. But documents show that he also intended to build homes or farms with a waterfront view there.

The heads of the planning and natural resources departments said during the hearing yesterday that Ehrlich ordered an inventory of state assets as a management tool during tight fiscal times, and that several steps must occur before land was listed for sale. The Department of Natural Resources has compiled a list of 3,000 acres of "potentially surplus" land in and around parks.

The list was released in response to a public records request by The Sun and other newspapers, and has raised concerns among environmentalists and others, particularly in light of the Hackerman deal.

McDonald, the former deputy chief of staff who is now an aide to a North Carolina congressman, said yesterday he remembers Rutherford calling him to discuss Hackerman, but said the deal had not advanced far at that point.

"I said, `Keep me posted,' as I did with all my secretaries," McDonald said.

Schurick and Kreseski did not return messages left yesterday.

Rutherford said he had not met Hackerman - a close ally of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and a major donor to Democratic candidates - before receiving a call from him in early 2003.

Hackerman expressed interest in land in Baltimore County and the Eastern Shore, Rutherford said. He wanted to duplicate a transaction he is executing in Baltimore County, in which he purchased land surrounding the estate home used as a residence for the University System of Maryland's chancellor and is donating development rights to the Maryland Environmental Trust in 25-acre chunks over several years, the secretary said.

Rutherford met with Hackerman in July last year and discussed selling him the St. Mary's tract instead. He said four or five people call him every week with requests to buy land, but most don't get meetings.

Rutherford said he has met with other developers about state properties, including Howard Brown, a Baltimore County developer who is a partner with Hackerman in a $220 million mixed-use development project on state land in Owings Mills.

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