Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. personally endorsed a secret land deal creating a tax break worth almost $7 million for a politically connected builder, a top administration official said yesterday.

State Department of General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford told a panel of lawmakers questioning the deal that an individual he would identify yesterday only as an unnamed "benefactor" approached him in spring or summer 2003, asking whether the state had preservation land to sell.

"The benefactor came to the Department of General Services, saying, `Are there properties out there?'" Rutherford said. "I made the introduction to the Department of Natural Resources, as well as the Nature Conservancy."

Rutherford said he took the transaction to Ehrlich once the deal began to take shape: The state would buy 836 acres of forest in St. Mary's County with the intention of immediately selling it to the benefactor at the same price. In exchange, the individual would promise to donate development rights in the future and give some land to the county for schools.

The governor was briefed on the deal in 2003 and "said it was worth pursuing," Rutherford testified before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee in Annapolis yesterday.

The Sun has identified the benefactor as Willard J. Hackerman, president and CEO of Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., the country's 14th-largest builder, which has projects such as Harborplace and the National Aquarium in Baltimore to its credit.

A regular donor to Democrats, Hackerman gave $10,000 to the state Republican Party last year. He is a close ally of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer.

Hackerman has not returned repeated calls for comment, including a telephone message left yesterday.

The sale to Hackerman is under discussion but not yet approved by the state Board of Public Works. Ehrlich and Schaefer are two of three board members.

Brokering the St. Mary's County land to create a tax break for Hackerman was envisioned before the land was purchased, Rutherford said.

If Hackerman had not come forward proposing the transaction, the state would not have bought the property, Rutherford said, even though the initial idea for preserving the forest dated to the administration of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Schaefer was a vocal critic of Glendening's land-buying programs. The purchase was delayed for several months because of fiscal concerns.

"I was not going to put it on the [Board of Public Works] agenda unless the governor told me to," Rutherford said in an interview after his Senate testimony. "It was with the governor's blessing. He voted for the land purchase."

Ehrlich is traveling in Asia this week. Spokesmen for him did not immediately return calls for comment last night.

"It stinks," said Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat and vice chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. "This deal is clearly in the lap of the governor."

Others said it might be part of a pattern of the state getting rid of valuable assets without calculating their true worth.

"I'm told by sources inside the department that there is a long list of environmentally sensitive properties that are being considered for sale. This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Del. Peter Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat who attended the hearing. "It's Program Open Space in reverse."

Rutherford testified that the state Department of Natural Resources showed Hackerman "a number of different properties" and allowed him to select the one he wanted.

"To have the governor approve a sale to an `anonymous benefactor' who really is a politically connected land developer is just an incredible error in judgment," Franchot said. "Even the Republicans were unable to defend it. The perception is terrible for the state and for the governor."