A judge stopped short yesterday of dismissing the criminal charges against Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, even though he said the prosecution put on a fairly weak case.
U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson said the fact that he had to think hard about the issue after six days of testimony "either says my analytical ability is severely limited or the evidence is rather thin or obscure."
The law required him to consider the evidence in the most favorable light to the prosecution, he said, so he allowed the mail fraud trial to continue.
Mr. Bereano, the highest paid lobbyist in the state capital, is on trial in Baltimore for allegedly overcharging his clients in 1990 through a scheme to make illegal campaign contributions to politicians.
"There's a lot of smoke out there," Judge Nickerson said. But "I'm satisfied a reasonable juror -- although it would take a lot of sifting through smoke to find it -- could make a determination based on . . . circumstantial evidence that there was a scheme to defraud."
The judge said he wanted to dismiss one of the eight charges but decided against it because it might confuse the jury. The mail fraud charges appear in pairs, he said, and removing one might have sent the jurors an unintended signal.
The judge's decision disappointed Mr. Bereano's lawyer, M. Albert Figinski. In a voice that seemed to crack, he said he had been on an "emotional roller coaster" and needed a few minutes "to compose myself and speak to my client."
He later explained that he had gotten his hopes up that the judge would grant his request to acquit Mr. Bereano before the case got to the jury.
After a brief break, Mr. Figinski told the judge he would rest his case without calling a witness in Mr. Bereano's defense.
Afterward, Mr. Figinski said he saw no reason to put on a defense because the prosecution's case was weak. "The government had not proven its case. There's a presumption of innocence, and we're going to take that to the jury," he said.
Mr. Bereano offered an additional reason: He wanted to save taxpayers' money.
"I think there's been enough waste during the 2 1/2 - to three-year investigation of me by the government and [during] the prosecution of this trial. There's been enough waste of taxpayer money, and it should come to an end," he said.
The charges against him were the result of a 17-month investigation that began with accusations of impropriety in the awarding of a state lottery contract to GTECH Corp., a client of his. Prosecutors found no evidence of wrongdoing in the lottery issue.
Judge Nickerson noted that none of Mr. Bereano's four alleged victims -- including a lawyer who had worked for "one of the most prestigious firms in this city" -- believed they had been cheated.
Several of them praised Mr. Bereano's and said he was an honest man.
But prosecutors said the lobbyist should not be rewarded for his success in hiding the fraud from the clients, who were allegedly bilked of $150 each.
At the heart of the case is whether Mr. Bereano used the mail to trick clients into paying for political contributions they never authorized. Their bills from him claimed the charges were for "legislative entertainment," prosecutors said.
Mr. Bereano's ex-wife and some former employees said he reimbursed them for campaign contributions he had them make. However, he has not been charged with campaign violations because the statute of limitations on them expired three years ago.
The trial will resume Tuesday with closing arguments from the lawyers.
Mr. Bereano is preparing to lobby the 1995 Maryland General Assembly.