Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. collected $100,000 for his re-election campaignat a private fund-raiser held by a business partner of construction companyowner Willard J. Hackerman this month, at the same time the governor's aideswere contemplating the sale of state preservation land to Hackerman at abelow-market price.
Ehrlich raised the money Nov. 4 at the Owings Mills home of Howard S.Brown, a developer and president of David S. Brown Enterprises. Brown andHackerman's Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. are partners in a project to builda $220 million town center at an Owings Mills Metro station parking lot thatwould include a library and university building.
The much-delayed project is stuck in litigation in which the state and theBrown and Hackerman team are joint plaintiffs against the former owner of thelot, and the town center will rely on a variety of state approvals to becompleted.
Four days after the fund-raiser, Hackerman bowed to criticism and abandonedhis plan to purchase the 836-acre forest in Southern Maryland for the sameprice paid by the state. Hackerman stood to gain up to $7 million in federaland state tax breaks if he preserved the land, but according to documentsreleased last week, he intended to build homes with a water view there.
Repercussions from the aborted deal are continuing. Yesterday, state Sen.Roy P. Dyson, a Southern Maryland Democrat, asked state Attorney General J.Joseph Curran Jr. for an investigation "to see if there was any criminalmisconduct" involved in the proposed St. Mary's County transaction.
"I believe it is up to the attorney general's office to investigate thismatter," Dyson said in a letter.
Some observers say the appearance of Ehrlich at the fund-raising eventillustrates the unsavory role of money in politics and state affairs.
"I would say that sends a message that if you help raise money for thegovernor, you may get special treatment when it comes to bidding on stateproperties," said James Browning, executive director of the campaign financewatchdog group Common Cause/Maryland.
"Tragically, it is the way the system works," Browning said. "It suggeststhat raising money for a candidate is the price of doing business ... It isexpected that you help out the campaign with one hand, while you are buyingland from the state with the other hand."
Ehrlich, through a spokesman, would not comment yesterday on thefund-raising event. Brown and Hackerman did not return telephone calls seekingcomment.
John Reith, Ehrlich campaign finance director, said the event at Brown'shome was attended by 100 people who paid $1,000 each for the opportunity tomeet the governor and view the developer's collection of modern art.
Brown had previously supported Democratic candidates, Reith said, and ispart of a growing number of Jewish leaders who appreciate Ehrlich's support ofIsrael. The event's co-host was Hanan "Bean" Sibel, a retired food broker whohas been a leading financial backer of U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, aDemocrat.
"We're an equal opportunity fund-raiser," Reith said. Hackerman did notattend the function, he said.
Brown and Hackerman are partners in the development group that was selectedin 2002, prior to Ehrlich's election, to build on a parking lot at the Metrostation. Their group was not chosen through a bidding process but was tappedafter another firm withdrew from the project.
While the parking lot is owned by the state, prior owners are fighting toget the land back, claiming they have the right to reclaim the property. Thestate and Hackerman and Brown are partners in a lawsuit to allow the projectto proceed.
Maryland Transit Administration spokesman Richard Scher said the Ehrlichadministration supports the Owings Mills project and is pleased with thedevelopment team.
"The development process is headed in the direction that the MTA wants,"Scher said.
The governor's office also would not comment yesterday on Sen. Dyson'srequest for a criminal investigation into Hackerman's negotiations to purchasea protected St. Mary's County forest.
Critics assailed the deal, wondering why the state was planning to sellland shortly after buying it without getting fresh appraisals.
Dyson wrote to Curran that constituents have told him they believe thestate acted criminally in putting together the deal. Dyson said he is not surehe agrees but said the questions have merit. At best, he said, it is "a badway for the state to do business."
Recent revelations that the Ehrlich administration is interested in sellingthousands of acres of public land in other parts of the state make questionsabout the Hackerman deal all the more crucial.
"Somebody needs to look into this, particularly if they plan to do more ofthis," Dyson said. "It would have really hurt here. It has the potential to doreal damage."
Curran reviewed Dyson's letter late yesterday and is contemplating his nextsteps, said spokesman Kevin Enright. "At this time, he has no comment,"Enright said.
`Get the ball rolling'
House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Annapolis Democrat, endorsed Dyson'srequest in an interview.
"Good for Roy. Somebody needed to get the ball rolling," Busch said.
Legislative critics have raised concerns that the Ehrlich administration isembarking on a broader strategy to move public land into the hands of privatedevelopers. Last week, The Sun reported a list of 64 parcels totaling nearly3,000 acres that the state Department of Natural Resources has identified assurplus property which could be sold to private interests. Most are in stateparks, forests and resource management areas.
State Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat who is chairwoman ofthe House Environmental Matters Committee, said yesterday she is planning ahearing to determine how the land was identified.
"It is certainly disturbing," she said.
Added Busch: "Every citizen pays transfer tax to preserve parks andenvironmentally sensitive areas, and the idea that the administration wants tosell them off to developers and large campaign contributors absolutely fliesin the face of good government."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun