The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, November 29, 2004

Teapot Dome in Maryland?

Not all state corruption wears a ten gallon hat...

I'm reluctant to spend too much time on the matter - since online material from the lead source, the Baltimore Sun, seems to self-destruct, Mission Impossible-style, after a few days.

However - Cliff Notes (WaPo November 4) - 836 acres in protected woodland in St Mary's County was acquired by the state in 2003 for $2.5 million, under an agreement which included a covenant that the land should not be developed.

Subsequently, state authorities came up with a plan to sell the land - at cost - to the Whiting-Turner Contracting Co (president and CEO one Willard Hackerman). The value of the property as development land is, needless to say, considerably more than $2.5 million: the area is, I gather, a popular one for incomers, where the pressure to release land for development is considerable.

The benefit to the community: WTC kick back 120 acres as a gift on which two schools were to be built.

The benefit to Hackerman: the special price, of course; plus, the piece says, a tax break of $6 million (how calculated?).

A sweetheart deal like that must surely be worthy of investigation - convenient that Governor Robert Erlich should take the opportunity of directing his adminstration not to talk to the Sun (on grounds as described by the Sun ombud).

Another GOP stitch-up? Hardly: it seems that Hackerman is best buddies with
Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D) [who] defended the proposal as fair.

Hackerman is a longtime friend and political patron of Schaefer's, and the comptroller defended the construction executive at yesterday's Board of Public Works meeting, calling him "one of the most decent men I've ever known in my life."

And then he blacked up to give them his Sonny Boy...

The Post has a deadpan kicker:
Ehrlich said yesterday that he barely knew Hackerman. Earlier this year, he appointed Hackerman to an unpaid post on the Maryland Health and Higher Educational Facilities Authority, a board that issues tax-exempt bonds for public sector and nonprofit construction projects.

Nonprofit for whom, exactly?

It's a modern example which one might analyse by the old concept of honest graft of which the (largely Democratic) machines made such assiduous use. The locus classicus is, of course, the offering of George Washington Plunkitt in the first chapter of his autobiography, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall.

Plunkitt supplies this example:
My party's in power in the city, and it's goin' to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I'm tipped off, say, that they're going to lay out a new park at a certain place.

I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before.

That is honest graft.

Dishonest graft he exemplifies as
robbin' the city treasury or levyin' blackmail on disorderly houses, or workin' in with the gamblers and lawbreakers.

Now, I'm not clear what happened to the 836 acres in St Mary's County: but, if it turns out that the land was acquired with the no-development covenant with a view to using the power of the state government to void that covenant [1], and pass the land on to a developer, at a price significantly lower than its actual value (including its development value). And that developer was a political ally of key officials responsible for granting permission to develop - that would pass beyond the definition of honest of even a scoundrel like Plunkitt!

The sale to WTC seems now to have been stopped. But, naturally, one has to ask: how many more deals like the one proposed for the 836 acres has Maryland entered into in the past? And what about the other 49 states?

  1. Who sold the land to the state? Can the vendor sue to enforce the covenant? Under what law can the covenant be voided? Can the state void a covenant in its own interest? And a hundred more...

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