After a plea from prosecutors that "the wealthy and powerful" be treated the same as any convicted criminal, a federal judge sentenced one of Maryland's most influential lobbyists to a 10-month term yesterday for a campaign-contribution fraud scheme.
Bruce C. Bereano, who also was fined $30,000, choked back tears moments before being sentenced in U.S. District Court in Baltimore and said he won't quit being a lobbyist or a lawyer.
"I know my heart is good," Bereano, 53, said in a courtroom packed with his friends and political supporters, among them former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel. "My life has been consumed always by trying to help others."
Bereano said he is seeking an appeal of his conviction before the Supreme Court.
The battle between Bereano and federal prosecutors has played out for nearly six years. The FBI began investigating Bereano in 1992.
Originally sentenced to probation in 1995, Bereano found himself in front of Judge William M. Nickerson a second time yesterday after the judge's ruling was overturned in August by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
This time, he got harsher treatment. Nickerson, whose original -- ruling was set aside after an appeal by prosecutors, recommended that Bereano be allowed to serve five months of his sentence in a halfway house or other community facility.
The lobbyist will serve the final five months on home detention, wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet. Nickerson also rejected Bereano's request that he be allowed to begin serving his sentence in April, after the next legislative session -- Bereano received more than $400,000 in fees during last year's session -- and ordered him to report for his sentence Feb. 5.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Dale P. Kelberman described Bereano's crime as "not one of passion or poverty, but one of greed and opportunity" that cheated clients out of more than $16,000 from May 1990 to June 1991.
"The court must take every opportunity it has to deter this kind of behavior," Kelberman told the judge. "People have the impression that those of power, influence and wealth are allowed to walk away from their misdeeds. But this is our chance today to show the public that people of wealth and power are treated the same as any other criminal."
A federal jury convicted Bereano in 1994 of seven counts of mail fraud, finding that he overbilled clients so he could make campaign contributions. The lobbyist had instructed family members and employees of his law firm to make the contributions, then passed the costs on to clients, prosecutors said.
The clients received phony bills from Bereano that described the costs as having gone toward entertaining legislators.
"Clearly, this was an extensive and widespread fraud," Kelberman said. "It went on for a couple of years, and it involved numerous people."
At the sentencing hearing in 1995, Nickerson elected to not sentence Bereano to jail because he found that the case lacked victims. Bereano's defrauded clients submitted letters to the court saying they didn't feel victimized and still trusted Bereano.
In court papers, prosecutors argued that Bereano's scheme was craftily orchestrated so that none of his clients bore too large a cost and therefore underestimated his criminal intent.
M. Albert Figinski, Bereano's lawyer, argued yesterday that there are still no victims. He referred Nickerson to more letters that Bereano's defrauded clients had written in support of him.
"If there is anyone who will take the stand and say that Bruce Bereano is a bad actor, or a fraud, or that he should be boiled in oil, it would be the first time in the history of this case," Figinski said.
Bereano said he has about 20 to 25 clients, who "believe now, believed before, and will believe forever that I didn't cheat them."
Last month, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals stripped Bereano of his license to practice law, citing the mail fraud conviction. His Maryland law license also may be in jeopardy. Figinski said Bereano's license is "under challenge" by Maryland's Attorney Grievance Commission.
Melvin Hirshman, the commission's chief disciplinary counsel, refused to comment yesterday on whether the commission plans to take any action on Bereano, citing confidentiality rules.
Pub Date: 12/05/98