Bereano shaped by money, power

THE BALTIMORE SUN

His image is based on money and his power on knowledge of state laws that he helped write.

Lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano has earned higher fees, taken on more clients and funneled more money into campaign treasuries than any other lobbyist in Maryland's history.

Though a reformer in his early years in Annapolis, Mr. Bereano was proud to be identified as the target of a 1991 legislative initiative intended to limit the influence of money in state politics.

This was the man who helped to win a pardon for former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel and eventually hired him as a lobbying partner.

A former drafter of bills and a teacher of a popular legislative seminar at the University of Maryland law school, Mr. Bereano boasted about his ability to stay within the letter of the law.

But yesterday, a federal grand jury said he failed to do so, indictinghim on eight counts of mail fraud for allegedly sending clients phony bills, channeling the proceeds to political candidates, and concealinghis own role as their backer.

On the morning that the indictment was handed down, Mr. Bereano began what for him was a typical day, starting with a fund-raiser at the Maryland Inn in Annapolis.

This one was a breakfast for Del. Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany. Mr. Bereano was impromptu master of ceremonies, and after

introducing several dignitaries, he sat at a table with Gov. William Donald Schaefer, several Cabinet members, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., also of Allegany, and State Police Superintendent Larry W. Tolliver.

Mr. Bereano's status has allowed him to push lobbying beyond lawyerly advocacy to an enterprise based on fund raising, access and influence.

He helped transform fund raising in Maryland from a system based on the quadrennial, $25-a-ticket bull roast or crab feast to a continuous effort in which legislators virtually sent bills to lobbyists with access to the deepest corporate pockets.

"Scared money," former Del. Donald Robertson of Montgomery County called it.

In some years, Mr. Bereano was one man lobbying for as many as 60 clients. He was managing about a dozen political action committees, including one he formed and called Bereano PAC. One of the PAC's contributors was his mother, Beatrice Bereano -- always a fan of good government, he told a reporter with a wink.

Bereano watchers frequently remarked on his audacity.

"If you're out there on the edge," says John S. O'Donnell, head of the state's Ethics Commission, "it's very hard not to make a mistake. People who operate on the edge of the table all the time almost always fall off."

A fretful General Assembly in 1991 ordered a legal separation between PACs and lobbyists, banning them as officers of campaign committees.

Lobbyists could no longer be involved in legislative fund raising -- although they could still advise clients on which legislators had beenfriendly enough to deserve a contribution.

Though legally limited in his fund-raising activities, Mr. Bereano continued to prosper as a lobbyist. He was paid more than $771,000 by 46 clients during the six-month reporting period that ended April 30. This did not include income from his law practice in Annapolis.

Now 49, this twice-divorced father of one son was born in New York City, graduated from George Washington University in 1966 and from its law school in 1969. He practiced law in Washington for several years before moving to the state capital.

His career began in the aura of his well-respected mentors, both of them Senate presidents. He was an aide to the late William S. James and then to Steny H. Hoyer, now a U.S. congressman.

They assigned him a number of reform initiatives and, in 1979, he was put to work on the law under which candidates for office raise money for their campaigns. The same statute governs the operationof lobbyists and conflicts of interest among legislators.

Stung by a rash of national and local scandals, the General Assembly wanted to assure voters it was trying to prevent further embarrassment. Mr. Bereano would later use the law as a manual for building political power and personal wealth.

Between 1975 and 1986, he served on a commission charged with revising all the laws of the state. He was chairman of the Anne Arundel County Charter Revision Commission. He was appointed to the Maryland Commission for Women and the Commission on Hispanic Affairs. He raised money for the March of Dimes, worked with the Boy Scouts, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Annapolis, and the Washington Regional Anti-defamation League of B'nai B'rith.

In the early 1980s, Mr. Bereano lobbied to free Mr. Mandel from federal prison, where the former governor was serving a sentence for political corruption. Mr. Mandel was pardoned and his conviction overturned.

Such exertions put Mr. Bereano in a chain of connection with the late, legendary Irv Kovens, the Baltimore businessman whose bulging Rolodex contained the names of all the bankrollers, high and low, in Maryland business.

Mr. Kovens was referred to by politicians as "The Furniture Man," a designation drawn from the West Baltimore Street store where he sold televisions, refrigerators and sofas. Mr. Bereano jested he might call himself "The Bagel Man," a reference to his Jewish roots.

He might also have been called "The PAC Man."

As a manager of PACs and as director of other corporate giving, he had as much power as his clients wanted to funnel to him. In the 1986-1990 election cycle, he claimed a treasury of $200,000 -- money he could distribute to candidates at every level of government.

He knew just what to do when he approached the maximum contribution allowed by the law -- called "maxing out."

As he told a reporter in the late 1980s, "I just un-maxed myself. I'm in the process of forming three more PACs." By doing so, he could make more contributions, proving limits were for others.

He bristled if anyone challenged him. "Just because I'm a lobbyist I don't have to give up my constitutional right to participate in the electoral process," he said.

Mr. Bereano's public fund raising and the annual chronicling of his fees -- tallied in state records as the sums moved inexorably toward the million-dollar mark -- made him the main target of legislative reformers worried that voters would think the lobbyist was wielding too much influence.

His success depended on money and influence, to be sure, but also onhis instinct for thoughtful gestures.

On the opening day of the General Assembly, as legislators were getting reacquainted, he never intruded. Near the end of the session, as legislators were heading into tedious meetings, he put candy bars on the seats of their committee-room chairs. He knew the snack-food habits of 47 senators and 141 delegates, providing jars of peanut butter or jugs of orange juice.

With so many business issues at stake, so many having little to do with the concerns of a legislator's constituents, votes often can be cast on the basis of friendship. And no one has worked harder at maintaining warm feelings.

A one-man comfort zone, Mr. Bereano has been the guy who paid The Hub Caps to play every year at a legislative sock hop. When a legislator got married, the lobbyist might show up at the wedding, even if it was held in Nebraska.

When it's time to deal, the setting is his table in the corner near the fireplace at the Maryland Inn.

When it's time to relax, he takes his legislative friends to football and basketball games.

The law allows a lobbyist to spend no more than $75 every six months on any one legislator without reporting the recipient.

But he has found a legal way to spend more without disclosing who got the cocktails, tickets, cigars and lunches. As a lobbyist with many wealthy clients -- nursing homes, telephone companies, eye doctors, cigarette makers, investment houses, vending machine companies -- he considers himself only the agent of each gift. On behalf of his clients, he assigns to each of them a share of the cost.

He could take legislators to dinner and a Bullets game even though the cost of that evening alone might exceed the $75 limit. Records filed with the state Ethics Commission show he has pro-rated the costs of entertaining all the legislators so the net expenses for each fall below the limit.

Occasionally, the lobbyist has bumped into former Delegate Robertson, one of the major legislative authors of the lobbying reforms that Mr. Bereano helped to write.

"He jokes with me and asks if I still think he's a white hat," Mr. Robertson said.

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