Convicted lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano won an unusual reprieve yesterday that allows him to continue practicing law while his criminal case is on appeal. Among the Court of Appeals judges who decided the case was one Mr. Bereano described as a personal friend, Judge John C. Eldridge.
Mr. Bereano also said he had approached three Court of Appeals judges before his sentencing in April to write letters on his behalf to U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson.
"I contacted a number of judges who are friends of mine -- very long-standing friends of 15 and 20 years," Mr. Bereano said. He confirmed that Judge Eldridge was among that group.
All three Court of Appeals judges declined to write to Judge Nickerson, saying it would be improper, Mr. Bereano said. Two of them -- Howard S. Chasanow and Irma S. Raker -- recused themselves from Thursday's hearing on the suspension of Mr. Bereano's law license.
But the third, Judge Eldridge, participated in the hearing Thursday and was the most vocal of the judges in questioning the petition to suspend Mr. Bereano's license.
Efforts to reach Judge Eldridge for comment were unsuccessful.
Mr. Bereano refused to elaborate on his relationship with the judge, who was appointed to the bench by Gov. Marvin Mandel, Mr. Bereano's former lobbying partner.
"Respectfully, I don't think it's relevant," he said.
The Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct says a judge should not participate in a proceeding if his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.
Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert C. Murphy said that's a personal call that the judges make "guardedly." "All of us know lawyers everywhere," he said. "If we recused ourselves every time we had a personal relationship, we wouldn't hear any cases."
Judge Murphy would not disclose how individual judges voted regarding Mr. Bereano's license. The one-page opinion said only that a majority of the seven-judge panel agreed that the lobbyist should keep his license while his case is on appeal.
Judges Chasanow and Raker removed themselves from the case because of close personal relationships with Mr. Bereano, Judge Murphy said.
Mr. Bereano was convicted in November of fraudulently billing clients for more than $16,000 to make illegal campaign contributions that were channeled through employees of his law firm, relatives and the Bereano political action committee.
He has been barred from practicing law in the District of Columbia and in the federal courts.
The state's Attorney Grievance Commission had argued that Mr. Bereano's law license should be suspended because his crimes reflected adversely on his honesty, trustworthiness and fitness as a lawyer.
The commission has recorded only a couple of cases in 14 years when the court did not suspend the license of a convicted lawyer, even with appeals pending, according to a spokesman. In those cases, it was because the judges concluded no harm had been done to the public.
Bolstered by a sentencing judge who reached that very conclusion, and clients who denied they had been defrauded, Mr. Bereano apparently convinced the Court of Appeals on that point.
"I'm not making any comments, period," Melvin Hirschman, spokesman for the commission said yesterday after the decision. "We'll have to wait and see what happens with his criminal case in the 4th Circuit."
Others were angered by the decision and the possible conflict in the relationship between Mr. Bereano and Judge Eldridge.
State rules are clear -- Mr. Bereano's license should have been suspended, said William Weston, a professor at the University of Baltimore law school who specializes in ethics.
"I'm outraged," he said. "One of the important functions of the rule is to protect the public and to keep people who have engaged in serious crimes from practicing law."
L That Mr. Bereano might be exonerated is irrelevant, he said.
And on the possibility of conflict involving Judge Eldridge: "Judges often fail to recuse themselves. They see the conflict in everyone else, but not in themselves. If he is a friend, he should have recused himself."
The appellate court decision "furthers the public perception that with enough money, favors and connections, you can beat the system," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland, a public interest lobbying group.
For his part, Mr. Bereano was elated. "From a professional standpoint, the thing I've cherished most is my law license," he said.
In making their decision, the judges acted with unusual speed. Similar cases have taken several weeks. And the Attorney Grievance Commission had predicted it would be mid-July before the judges filed their opinion.
But according to Judge Murphy, Mr. Bereano received the same consideration that would have been given any other attorney.
"There was nothing special about this case," he said. "Our judges are very upfront, lots of integrity. We're not just going to decide what the public wants and give it to them."