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Appeals panel hints at sympathy with Bereano's bid to keep law license


If the public has learned one thing about Bruce C. Bereano, it's never to count him out.

Yesterday the lobbyist was back in court in an attempt to persuade a panel of judges to allow him to continue practicing law while he appeals his seven-count fraud conviction.

Many people, included his sentencing judge, have said that losing his law license under the circumstances was inescapable. But several of the judges of the Maryland Court of Appeals signaled sympathy with Mr. Bereano's arguments.

Their toughest questions yesterday were reserved for the lawyer representing the Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland, which is seeking the suspension of Mr. Bereano's license.

The judges made barely a peep to challenge Mr. Bereano.

"I was expecting more questions," he said afterward. "I don't know what to make of it. I don't predict things."

Melvin Hirshman, bar counsel for the Attorney Grievance Commission, refused to read anything into the judges' questioning.

"There is no argument that goes the same," he said. He predicted the court would file its decision by mid-July.

Mr. Bereano was convicted in 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. Mr. Bereano avoided a prison term when a federal judge concluded that no one had been harmed by his crimes. In fact, the judge said, his clients might actually have been helped.

State rules say a lawyer's license can be suspended for any criminal act that reflects adversely on his "honesty, trustworthiness or fitness as a lawyer."

Kendall Calhoun of the Attorney Grievance Commission urged the court yesterday to suspend the license because Mr. Bereano's crimes involved dishonesty. The conviction has tarnished his trustworthiness as a lawyer and the profession in general, she said. In such cases, the court routinely suspends a lawyer's license, she said.

"What the court has before it is a jury that found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt," she said.

Judge John C. Eldridge had a different idea.

"The federal judge said he did not think there was any dishonesty -- that's what we have as of now," he said.

Another judge called the case unique.

"I don't think we've ever had here a case where the victims didn't think of themselves as victims," said Judge Arrie W. Davis, a judge from the Court of Special Appeals.

Two judges -- Howard S. Chasanow and Irma S. Raker -- recused themselves from the case. Efforts to reach both were unsuccessful yesterday. Mr. Bereano would not discuss whether had associations with the judges or why they might have stepped down.

In his address to the court, the lobbyist challenged Ms. Calhoun's statement that clients should be protected from lawyers like Mr. Bereano.

"Protect my clients from what?" he said. "I did not steal from my clients. Everything I did was to help and enhance them.

"The only complaining party has been the U.S. attorney's office."

In April, Mr. Bereano received five years of probation, six months in a halfway house and a $20,000 fine.

But U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson delayed the sentence pending Mr. Bereano's appeal, saying the conviction stood a reasonable chance of being overturned.

Mr. Bereano asked the court to delay any action on his law license while his case is on appeal.

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