Cosmic Cocktail in 2 weeks: Get your ticket today before they sell out.



When he is sentenced for mail fraud this Friday, lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano will be picking up the tab for politicians one more time.

The man who would always spring for lunch or Redskins tickets or campaign cash will take the fall for elected officials accustomed to big favors.

He will be sentenced for fraud -- for burying illegal campaign contributions in the reimbursements he claimed from his clients.

He says he will appeal. But if his conviction stands, he may serve time in prison, pay a fine and lose his license to practice law. He might still be able to lobby, but his former eminence will be gone.

He was convicted, he insists bitterly, of being a lobbyist. It might be more accurate to say he was convicted of being Bereano: of over-reaching gleefully in pursuit of legislative friends, men and women who would vote for his bills or against the bills of his enemies. Sure, he used argument -- often and skillfully -- but there was so much more.

The essence was fund raising. He wanted a linkage between campaign contributions and his own interests, whatever they might be. That under-standing took the game far beyond debating points.

At its worst, the Bereano system put the democratic process at the disposal of those who could buy $100 tickets to events thrown by the "Friends of . . . Whomever." He was a one-man ticket-selling network, anxious to move 'em by the tableful.

The fund-raising and ethics laws, which he had helped to write as a young lawyer, put the burden for compliance on the giver. The legislator was spared, of course.

Did Bereano buy the process for his clients? Nothing quite so crass.

His success depended, not on any single gift or dinner of whatever cost, but on an atmosphere of solicitude, responsiveness and connections. He could take on 50 or more clients, an impossible load, because he had access to the most powerful legislators.

For years, he held off efforts to curb smoking, the sale or advertising of cigarettes to minors and the like. He relied on a full quiver of techniques, including his assertion that smoking rights were as important as civil rights or abortion rights. He wove together coalitions. Last year, a smoking ban was ordered -- by the governor, by regulation -- to get around Bereano's power to obstruct.

This year, though he was not representing the Tobacco Institute, he still had some of the vending interests in his stable of clients. Using the old arguments, he helped pass legislation that put exemptions into the new law for bars and restaurants. Lobbyist's law: Kill the bad bills when you can, amend them when you can't.

On Friday, the penalty for being too much a part of the process will fall, not on the General Assembly members he served, but on him. It is another facet of being Bereano that he was willing, up to now, to take the heat, to pick up the check. Everything he did was an implicit IOU.

He was the passionate advocate in Annapolis of the Tobacco Institute, and he gladly absorbed the criticism leveled at tobacco interests. After his conviction last fall, though, the Institute let him go. Other clients moved away as well.

Few will be sympathetic. If he went too far, well, wasn't that Bruce?

One of his competitors, Gerard Evans, put it this way several years ago: "He should remember what happened to Humpty Dumpty."

In 1991, though, the legislative demand for fund-raising favors grew so intense that lobbyists went to presiding officers of the General Assembly to ask for relief -- from legislators insistent upon help with fund raising. A series of reforms was passed, significantly separating the lobbyist from fund raising. The pressure has been reduced at least until Bereano's successors decide that fund raising will provide some advantage in the closely fought war of arguments.

Once again, Bereano has been the fulcrum of reform. Throughout the legislative session that ended Monday, some legislators insisted "reform" had been necessitated by his conviction. But the Assembly leaders were conflicted.

They wanted to disown his crime, while embracing him personally. As many as 200 legislators, lawyers, and former and current public officials have written to the court in his defense. Among the petitioners are former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

They are treating him affectionately, like a family member, a brother or an uncle who may have strayed but still commands love and loyalty.

The system has always served him well.

He earned upward of $1 million in the annual three-month legislative sessions. If he dipped into the expense pool to write campaign checks, it was a deep pool and, some whispered, not by accident.

His success this year was either an extraordinary feat by a lobbyist besmirched or a revelation about the underlying dynamic: Any lobbyist can cobble together a coalition of legislators when the public perceives government interference.

Bereano was as much a part of the legislative landscape as the gray marble floors or the black and red bill binders or the cherry trees along Lawyers' Mall outside the State House steps. There was no aspect of the lawmaking process he had not mastered. He was charming, honest enough to say so if he was skating near the edge: When he wanted one more extension of his contribution network, he formed "Bereano PAC" and laughed about how outrageous that was.

Some in the Assembly wanted to send a "reform" signal this year. Others resented the idea that Bereano's difficulties had any implications for them and resisted change.

A bill was offered making it illegal for a legislator to accept tickets to sporting and other events. And the bill was changed to permit the gifts as long as they were reported.

"They couldn't quite do an outright ban," says Deborah Povich, the Common Cause lobbyist.

Legislators seemed genuinely confused during the debate. One of them asked for a 3-by-5 card that would tell him what was permissible and what was not.

The public was left to marvel: What arguments could possibly be made for allowing lobbyists to give gifts at all? There were many such arguments.

* In the course of a 90-day legislative session, over the course of many such sessions, the citizen-legislator and the lobbyist become friends, close, like family. Family members give each other gifts.

"We have relationships with people here that transcend politics," says Ira C. Cooke, still a lobbyist after twice being convicted on marijuana charges.

"People went to law school together or to nursing school. When you spend two or three months with people in a place like this, they do become a part of your family," he said.

* A ban on gifts implies the existence of corruption, impugns the integrity of every delegate and senator.

Some thought disclosure might work. Racetrack passes, once a staple of legislative perquisites, are not as much in evidence since their receipt must be reported. Others observed that real change always arrives slowly in Annapolis. Remember how long it had taken, they recalled, for the Assembly to realize that vulgar, sexist comments made by Del. John S. Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat, would disqualify him for a judgeship. "It takes a veritable hurricane to get change of any kind here," said Del. Leon G. Billings, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Last week's zephyr of reform was generated two years ago when Mr. Billings sent a letter to the U.S. attorney asking for an investigation of a $62 million computer contract -- negotiated by Bereano for the GTECH Corp. That investigation led to the Bereano indictment and conviction.

Delegate Billings offered a caution against over-reliance on law.

"Power is so centralized here that it's possible to abuse it without ever doing anything that is legally wrong. But people don't care so much about who goes to jail or for how long. What they want is people who don't abuse the process," he said.

Bereano is left now to lobby the sentencing decision of a U.S. District Court judge. He had helped to generate the outpouring of support, a tour de force of the Bereano style. It seems risky to pressure a judge -- as if he were a freshman legislator -- but what was there to lose?

Some do concede that the General Assembly bears some responsibility for Bereano's downfall.

"We are clearly complicit in that we have to raise money," says Delegate Billings. "All of us in politics tend to want to look the other way when it comes to money. None of us likes the implication of obligation, the potential of a relationship between how we vote and where the money comes from."

But there it is.

American Joe Miedusiewski, formerly a Baltimore senator and now a lobbyist, agrees: In the gift-giving equation, he says, "There's an offerer and an accepter."

No one offered more than Bereano.

"He can take credit for whatever reform is passed this year. Those bills wouldn't have gotten off the presiding officers' desks," Mr. Billings said.

Change has come already.

Mr. Evans -- whose connections in Annapolis are fully reminiscent of Bereano's -- is now ensconced in comfortable space on Duke of Gloucester Street, closer to the Maryland Inn even than Bereano.

The lobbying corps has become something of a career path for legislators. The ranks now include a former governor, a former lieutenant governor, a former House speaker and several former chairmen. Unlike Bereano, they often deploy in teams.

"It's not Billy the Kid any more," says Buzz Winchester, lobbyist for the Maryland Bar Association, "it's the James gang."

Many of these advocates lined up shoulder to shoulder like crows on a wire last week as the gift-giving legislation was being amended. A platter of lox and bagels had been made available to the lawmakers by Mr. Evans' firm. Some of the lobbyists laughed at the spectacle of lawmakers with mouthfuls of lobbyist food -- debating reform.

No one mentioned Humpty Dumpty.

D8 C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad