Two top aides to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. personally signed off on a plan to negotiate the sale of 836 acres of forested land in St. Mary's County to a politically connected construction executive, General Services Secretary Boyd Rutherford said yesterday.
Rutherford confirmed that he held private meetings with construction company owner Willard Hackerman last year to discuss the details of the proposed land sale, an arrangement that could have exposed the conservation land to development and produced nearly $7 million in tax breaks for Hackerman.
Rutherford said he began negotiations with Hackerman only after getting a green light from Ehrlich's communications director, Paul E. Schurick, and his chief of staff, Steven L. Kreseski.
"They basically said, 'Go ahead. See where it goes,' " Rutherford said.
Rutherford's comments were the first public suggestion that aides in Ehrlich's inner circle had been involved from the outset. The Cabinet secretary spoke with reporters immediately after state lawmakers concluded a two-hour hearing to review the Republican administration's real estate activities.
During that hearing, Democratic lawmakers continued to question the propriety of the St. Mary's land deal -- a transaction that was aborted in early November, shortly after details of the proposal became public.
House Environmental Matters Committee Chairman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore) said she called the hearings because of "grave concerns" about the governor's real estate initiatives and a desire to "restore public confidence around the disposition of state-owned land."
The bulk of the testimony from state planning and natural resources officials focused on a broad plan undertaken at Ehrlich's direction to identify state land that was not being used and potentially could be sold. The state officials told lawmakers about the elaborate process involved in bringing a parcel of state-owned land onto the open market.
Several delegates said they did not view the presentation as a reassurance but as a cause for deeper concern because the St. Mary's land appears not to have gone through the traditional, rigorous clearinghouse process.
"The process you describe may or may not make sense," said Del. Peter Franchot (D-Montgomery). "The question is, how does a piece of property like [the one in St. Mary's County] all of a sudden get put at the top of the list?"
McIntosh referred to the St. Mary's land as "an anomaly" and said "it was clearly outside this process."
During his remarks after the hearing, Rutherford defended the way his office oversaw the proposed sale of the St. Mary's land, saying it presented a unique opportunity for the state.
He said Department of Natural Resources officials had been searching for a way to preserve the property but did not have the money to buy it outright. In July 2003, he received a call from Hackerman, he said.
The businessman, who owns Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., was looking for a deal similar to one he made in 2000 with the University of Maryland Foundation. Hackerman bought 109 acres in Baltimore County from the foundation for $3 million, records show. He then received tax breaks by donating easements on that property to the Maryland Environmental Trust. He made three 25-acre donations, one each in 2001, 2002 and 2003.
"He told me he was interested in doing something similar and asked if we had any land available that we wanted to see preserved," Rutherford said.
Rutherford said he invited Hackerman to meet with him in his office and discuss it further, something he said he has done with several other business executives interested in purchasing state land. He said he cleared the meeting with Deputy Chief of Staff Edward McDonald and with Schurick and Kreseski.
Kreseski said yesterday that he did not recall the conversation but does not doubt that it took place. He said there was nothing about the proposal that troubled him and that it "was never approached with an eye towards rewarding anyone." Schurick said he recalled speaking with Rutherford and encouraging him to proceed but also to "engage all the people that had to be involved in a transaction like this -- principally, the Board of Public Works and legislative leaders." And that, Schurick said, is what happened.
Hackerman repeatedly has declined to comment on the deal.
Rutherford said he and Hackerman held several subsequent discussions about the St. Mary's acreage, including whether the businessman might increase his tax advantage by seeking to have the land zoned once he bought it from the state.
He said Hackerman also discussed building several small retreats on the land and inquired about clearing nearby state forestland so his parcel would have an unobstructed view of the scenic St. Mary's River.