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Bereano fights for law license


Most lawyers convicted of crimes accept their fate by disappearing quietly and without argument.

Not Bruce C. Bereano.

Once the state's most successful lobbyist -- now a felon convicted of mail fraud -- Mr. Bereano yesterday banked on the powers of persuasion that have stood by him for years and applied a full court press to retain his Maryland law license.

He arrived at the Maryland Court of Appeals in Annapolis armed with a 27-page memorandum supplemented by 6 pounds of exhibits -- hundreds of pages of legal briefs, court transcripts, excerpts of state law, newspaper clippings, even cartoons.

And, yes, letters.

But unlike the more than 400 letters from supporters he delivered to prod a judge toward a light sentence -- letters that evoked no small measure of public wrath -- Mr. Bereano included only 15 yesterday. He said it would have been inappropriate to offer the others since they had to do with his sentencing.

Those filed yesterday included four from lobbying clients who denied being victims of Mr. Bereano, even though he was convicted of defrauding them. The rest were from law clients who said they would like him to continue as their attorney.

Mr. Bereano has chosen to represent himself in this battle.

"I am without sufficient funds to continue to pay attorney fees," said the lobbyist, whose salary in good years has topped $1 million. "Hopefully I've also shown that I can lawyer. That I just don't take people out to breakfast, lunch and dinner."

Yesterday was his deadline to answer the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland, which last month filed a petition with the Court of Appeals to suspend his law license.

In nearly all cases, the Court of Appeals votes to suspend the license of an attorney convicted of a felony. Despite that, the judges have made exceptions on a few occasions in recent years in cases where they felt the crime resulted in little public harm, according to the Attorney Grievance Commission.

A key question is whether the attorney was found guilty of a crime of "moral turpitude." And in the vernacular of the court, moral turpitude encompasses crimes of depravity or acts of fraud.

"Moral turpitude is pretty hard to define," a commission spokesman said. "And the Court of Appeals can do anything it wants to."

In the past, the commission routinely has asked that a license be suspended any time an attorney is sentenced for a felony, as Mr. Bereano was April 21 for seven counts of federal mail fraud. He was convicted last November of fraudulently billing clients of more than $16,000 to make illegal campaign contributions that were channeled through employees of his law firm, family members and the Bereano political action committee.

The Court of Appeals may schedule a hearing -- although Mr. Bereano didn't ask for one -- or the judges could make their decision without one. In similar cases, they have responded within a month. The judges also could refer the case to a Circuit Court Judge, who would hold hearings and make a recommendation to the Court of Appeals.

Mr. Bereano is asking to be able to retain his license during the appeal process. In papers filed with the judges, he noted that U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson considered his a "close" case with a conviction that might well be overturned. For these reasons, Judge Nickerson delayed the sentence of five years probation, six months community confinement and a $20,000 fine pending appeal. The state Court of Appeals, likewise, should permit Mr. Bereano to continue practicing law until those questions are resolved, he argued.

State rules do not require a suspension at this point, and allowing him to continue practicing law would pose no threat to public confidence in the law profession, he argued in court documents.

Throughout his fraud case, Mr. Bereano argued that he was made a target only because of his success and high profile as a lobbyist. The government could prove fraud totaling no more than $600, he claimed.

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