A deal that would turn over state land set aside for conservation to the head of a Baltimore construction company will come under scrutiny in a legislative hearing next week as lawmakers voice concerns about clearing the way for a tax break for a major political donor.
"I think it all needs to be looked at in the light of day," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said yesterday.
Under a proposal aired last month, the land, 836 acres of woodland near a booming area of Southern Maryland, would be sold for $2.5 million, exactly what the state paid when it bought the property less than a year ago.
The buyer, Willard Hackerman, president and chief executive of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., would donate the acreage needed for at least two St. Mary's County schools and then sell the development rights for the rest of the land back to the state, allowing him to claim a federal tax deduction, according to state officials.
Initially, state officials did not release the name of the purchaser, prompting concerns about secrecy and possible cronyism. The involvement of Hackerman, who has donated to both political parties, was first reported in the Baltimore Sun yesterday.
In St. Mary's, some county leaders are hoping the deal will proceed despite the controversy, so that they receive some badly needed land for new schools -- free.
"It returns money to taxpayers, preserves 700 acres of land, gets us a school site," said Thomas F. McKay (R-At Large), president of the Board of County Commissioners. "I still don't understand what people find wrong with that."
But legislative leaders said the initial secrecy may cause the deal to unravel.
"You can't represent the citizens and their tax dollars by giving one individual an exclusive right," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). "I mean, who does business that way?"
Administration officials will be asked to explain the deal at a Senate Budget and Taxation Committee hearing Tuesday.
Last month, Maryland Secretary of General Services Boyd K. Rutherford informed top lawmakers that a "benefactor with a history of philanthropy" wanted to buy the land for tax purposes.
Rutherford said that even though the land was bought to be preserved, the state could not place development restrictions before the sale on it because it would devalue the land, making it useless as a tax shelter.
Hackerman did not return calls seeking comment yesterday. Miller said the construction executive is a close ally of comptroller and former governor William Donald Schaefer (D). Hackerman's firm has negotiated a range of deals with Baltimore and the state, including the construction of Camden Yards, the home of the Baltimore Orioles.
He has also been a prolific political donor, contributing $1,000 to both presidential candidates in the 2002 election cycle and giving $5,000 to the Democratic National Committee, according to Federal Election Commission records.
On the state level, Hackerman in 2003 gave $15,000 to the Maryland Democratic Party and $10,000 to the Maryland Republican Party, and he has contributed to both Miller and Busch, according to state Board of Elections records.
In St. Mary's, some political leaders said they had not heard of Hackerman. But they know that the land they need for schools could cost millions of dollars.
"People in St. Mary's realize we need school locations," McKay said.
"This isn't about school sites," responded Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's), who has been skeptical of the secrecy and raised environmental concerns as well. "That was kind of thrown in at the last minute to maybe make the deal sound more . . . palatable."
Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.