Characterizing the fraud case against lobbyist Bruce Bereano as short on victims, a federal judge yesterday delivered a sentence on the light side -- five years of probation and a $20,000 fine.
The sentence fell far short of the 2 1/2 -year prison term and $60,000 fine prosecutors said Mr. Bereano deserved for defrauding clients to make illegal campaign contributions. The sentence includes a six-month period of "community confinement," which could include service at a halfway house, and 500 hours of community service.
Until recently the state's most successful lobbyist, Mr. Bereano was convicted last November of multiple counts of mail fraud.
But U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson said yesterday that the supposed victims actually may have benefited from Mr. Bereano's activities. He said the losses to them were not measurable.
"The victims here were just getting what they bargained for -- a close working relationship with legislators who represented their concerns," the judge said. "It's easy to see why the clients do not perceive themselves as victims."
The judge also pointed to the stack of about 400 letters he had received from police officers, lawyers, legislators, judges and others, all lauding the lobbyist's character and community achievements.
Before sentencing, a hoarse Mr. Bereano addressed the judge in a 20-minute speech frequently interrupted as he choked back tears.
The government's case had made his life a nightmare, he told the court.
"That I reached such heights, being Bruce Bereano -- that's why this case was pursued," he said. Saying he had filled his life with helping other people, he asked the judge to "make good use of my time" by sentencing him to community service.
Fourteen minutes into his speech he made the first mention of his crimes. He denied doing anything wrong.
Appearing emotionally exhausted after the sentencing, Mr. Bereano hugged one of his lawyers and said he was "appreciative and grateful for what the judge did."
He was released on his own recognizance and will remain free while his lawyers appeal.
Prosecutors declined to comment.
But a juror who heard the case said he was disappointed that so many public officials had lobbied so intensely for Mr. Bereano. And he said the sentence was too easy.
"It doesn't seem like much of a penalty," said Brian Chadwick, the juror. "To see all these influential people say he should just be let off with a little slap on the wrist is kind of a scary example of how things are run."
Yesterday's daylong hearing was punctuated by appearances by more than a dozen Bereano supporters -- including several current and former judges. All testified that the lobbyist was an honest, caring person. They had never known him to be dishonest, each said.
"He's a man of very high integrity," said Anne Arundel District Judge Martha F. Rasin, who used to work in Mr. Bereano's law firm. "It's the little guy he's most interested in representing."
But the prosecutor asked the judge to be tough.
"If the view is that clients benefited from Bereano's conduct, then this is far worse than a mail fraud case," Assistant U.S. Attorney Dale P. Kelberman told the judge. "What does that say about the clients? Doesn't that make the situation worse, not better?" Mr. Bereano had enlisted help from several employees and family members in the scheme, which cheated clients of $16,000, Mr. Kelberman said. And he said he had abused a position of trust as a lawyer and lobbyist to take advantage of his clients. His activities had further eroded public confidence in the political process, Mr. Kelberman argued.
But Judge Nickerson rejected those arguments.
He said that if the public trust was affected by the case, it probably was because of press reports, not Mr. Bereano's actions directly. Mr. Bereano also will pay by losing his license to practice law, the judge said.
Moreover, the judge said federal prosecutors charged Mr. Bereano with mail fraud, not with broader violations of election law.
Once Judge Nickerson settled those matters, he was limited by federal guidelines to a sentence totaling six to 12 months in prison, with the option of probation, fines of $2,000 to $20,000, and two to three years of supervised release.
Mr. Bereano always claimed he was targeted unfairly because of his success and high profile as a lobbyist.
His indictment last May was the culmination of a 17-month investigation that began with accusations of impropriety involving Mr. Be- reano's representation of G-TECH Corp., which won Maryland's lucrative $49 million lottery contract in 1992. That probe yielded no evidence, but it led elsewhere.
Investigators discovered that between May 1990 and June 1991, Mr. Bereano instructed family members and employees of his law firm to make campaign contributions to candidates he specified. He reimbursed them by charging clients. On bills, those contributions appeared as costs for entertaining legislators.
That crime did not outweigh the positives, Mr. Bereano's friends insisted. Even clients who were defrauded by the scheme wrote letters in his defense.
After a landslide of correspondence supporting Mr. Bereano, at least three letters appeared with an opposing viewpoint.
Gerald W. Winegrad, a longtime Annapolis delegate who recently left office, criticized what has become standard legislative procedure -- and Mr. Bereano's influence on it. Many times, he wrote, bills were introduced by other legislators "for Bruce." And amendments were offered "for Bruce." Mr. Bereano has skirted the edge of ethics and election laws for many years, he added.
"He has exerted what I believe to be a corrupting influence over the legislative process," Mr. Winegrad wrote.
Many times Mr. Bereano invited him to professional basketball games or Redskins games and to $50- and $100-a-ticket events as his guest, he wrote.
"I declined all of these as the ONLY reason I could imagine why he would offer such invitations would be to influence my duties as a legislator," Mr. Winegrad wrote.
And an Annapolis resident appealed to Judge Nickerson to be tough.
The sentence, he wrote, "will show our children and future generations that justice does work for all, equally, and that it can not be bought or manipulated."