Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s top land conservation advisers raised strenuous objections to a deal that involved selling 836 acres of state-protected woodland to a politically connected developer, even as others in the administration continued to push the land deal.
One of these officials, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Natural Resources, said he twice addressed confidential memoranda to Ehrlich (R), outlining his concerns. A second former official said yesterday he wrote a similar memo to Natural Resources Secretary Ronald Franks.
"The memo said this deal was unethical and it was wrong," said Wesley R. Johnson, who was interviewed yesterday after being contacted by The Washington Post. "When you do a deal like this, it calls into question our motives. People who sell us property with the intent of seeing it preserved simply do not expect us to turn right around and sell it."
Johnson said he does not know if the memos ever reached the governor because they were routed through one of Ehrlich's deputy chiefs of staff. That deputy, Ed Miller, said last night he does not recall seeing the memo but said "it's entirely possible something was sent through. There were many different solicited and unsolicited opinions [on this deal]. The governor always listens to these opinions."
Last week, Ehrlich tried to distance himself from the growing controversy over the proposed sale of the state-owned land to Willard Hackerman, president and chief executive of Baltimore-based Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. The land sits at the headwaters of the St. Mary's River.
The proposed $2.5 million sale -- a price believed to be well below market value in the fast-growing Washington exurb -- involved land the state bought last year from a Virginia-based conservation group for the purpose of preserving it. The state would then have allowed Hackerman to develop some of the land, under the condition he donate 120 acres for two schools and give the state a protective easement over the rest.
That arrangement could have yielded Hackerman a tax break worth more than $6 million. When details came to light last month, legislative leaders condemned the proposal.
Hackerman did not return a call to his office yesterday. The building executive has a long history of dealings with the state, including the purchase of 109 acres from the University of Maryland Foundation in 2000 for $3 million, records show. Hackerman then donated easements on that Baltimore County property to the Maryland Environmental Trust. He made three 25-acre donations, one each in 2001, 2002 and 2003.
The governor has acknowledged being briefed on the St. Mary's County deal, but he said last week that he does "not get involved with the details of individual land purchases."
Yesterday, Johnson and others within the administration described a prolonged clash between Natural Resources officials -- who worked to prevent the deal from progressing -- and aides to the governor, who tried to keep it on track.
Both Johnson and his predecessor as head of the land conservation office, Mike Nelson, said in interviews yesterday that there was widespread discontent within their department about the proposal.
Nelson said he sent a diplomatically worded memo to the secretary in fall 2003. It "basically outlined the difficulties associated with this transaction, with an emphasis on the fact that this will be controversial, complicated and difficult," he said.
Nelson left the agency in October 2003, but not before briefing his replacement, Johnson, on the proposed land sale.
"The first words out of my mouth were, 'That's the rottenest . . . deal I ever heard of,' " said Johnson, an Ehrlich appointee. "They wanted to sell this land, and I said: 'Absolutely not. There's no way.' That was my position; I never wavered on it. And so, I became an obstructionist. I lasted a year."
In August, three months before he retired, Johnson said he compiled a list of concerns and put them in a memo to Ehrlich. He said he asked the governor to consider that the Conservation Fund, the group that sold the property to the state, never would have done so if it thought the land would be resold for development. He wrote that he objected to selling the land for its purchase price, $2.5 million, especially without an independent appraisal.
"And, finally, there was the whole matter of public perception," Johnson said. "The whole issue of land preservation would look very questionable."
Top Ehrlich aides said yesterday that Franks, the Natural Resources secretary, also harbored many of those same objections, but the aides did not know if Franks brought them to the governor's attention. Franks did not respond to a message left yesterday with his spokeswoman.
General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford, who helped broker the proposed sale, said yesterday that Franks raised those concerns with him. "I said he should talk about this with the governor's staff," Rutherford said.
Rutherford said he did not share Franks's concerns and said the deal could satisfy a number of goals. "It would limit development on the land at no expense to the taxpayer," he said. Also, St. Mary's County would get land for two schools. And none of this, he said, would have been done covertly.