Hackerman says secrecy about deal wasn't his idea

Construction magnate Willard J. Hackerman said yesterday that it was not his idea to keep his identity secret in discussing his plan to buy St. Mary's County preservation land from the state.

In his most detailed explanation yet about the aborted land deal, Hackerman, the chief executive of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., also confirmed in a written statement that he planned to partially develop the parcel.


Hackerman said he wanted to "set the record straight" on the plan. It has been criticized by lawmakers and environmentalists and has been scrutinized during four legislative hearings, including one yesterday by the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Matters Committee.

The developer, whose company built such Baltimore landmarks as the National Aquarium and Convention Center, was identified in state documents and in public testimony as an anonymous "benefactor," a term General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford said he coined.


"I never at any time asked to be referred to as a 'benefactor' or to have my name kept secret," Hackerman wrote.

Rutherford apologized yesterday for his decision to hide the name for much of the past year.

"If the use of the term 'benefactor' is a mistake, then I accept it as a mistake," he said.

Rutherford said he felt the need to conceal the purchaser's identity because if the deal fell apart, no one would have needed to know Hackerman's identity.

"I have been unfairly punished by the onslaught of negative publicity fueled by those who callously try to harm my reputation for their own political and other purposes," Hackerman said in his statement, which was accompanied by letters of reference from local luminaries such as Cardinal William H. Keeler and the Abell Foundation head, Robert C. Embry Jr.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, committee chairman, said Rutherford's lack of disclosure greatly fueled lawmakers' concerns.

"When there is sunshine, there are less questions," she said.

Hackerman planned to buy 836 acres of forest near the St. Mary's River State Park, known as the Salem Tract, for the same price the state paid, promising he would donate the development rights to the Maryland Environmental Trust and saying he planned to give some of the land to the county for a school.


In his statement yesterday, delivered by his attorney George A. Nilson, Hackerman said he intended to develop "a relatively few farms" on about 50 acres.

"I never would have 'developed' any of the Salem Tract except for the 'relatively few farms' and the donation of a public school site," he wrote. "I repeatedly so advised state officials."

Hackerman did not attend the meeting.

Rutherford said he was unaware when the state purchased the land in November 2003 of Hackerman's plan to develop farms on the property.

Nilson said his client planned to build about five "small and tasteful buildings" for family members on the site.

The original plan was for the state to transfer the property to him immediately after it bought the land, eliminating the need for new assessments, Hackerman wrote. He said he expected to pay somewhat more than the state's $2.5 million purchase price to account for rising property values.


Hackerman also disputed the upper end of the Department of Legislative Services' estimate for the tax break he could have received by donating the development rights on the property.

He wrote that it would more likely be about $2.9 million, not $7 million, meaning he would have gotten slightly more back in tax credits than he paid for the land.

Hollinger distributed draft legislation intended to give the General Assembly more control over state land sales. This deal makes the need for legislation evident, some lawmakers said.

"The process stinks, in my opinion," said Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Democrat from St. Mary's County. "I think something went radically wrong here."

The genesis of the deal was Hackerman's experience in buying land from the University of Maryland System around its chancellor's house and donating its development rights piece-by-piece to the Maryland Environmental Trust, he wrote.

Boni Friedman, president of a homeowners association adjacent to the house, said Hackerman helped neighbors by clearing land, conducting surveys and fulfilling commitments that he didn't have to make.


"Senator Dyson, if I were you, I would have been thankful that Willard Hackerman owned property near me," she said.