Lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano's return to the corridors of government ended at least temporarily yesterday when he was charged with violating terms of a work-release program insisted upon by the U.S. Probation Office.
Bereano had been out of a Volunteers of America halfway house in Baltimore during working hours since Tuesday, attending to his law practice and representing clients before the General Assembly.
But yesterday he did not return to Annapolis and later said in a telephone interview that he'd been accused of violating his work-release plan's prohibition on lobbying -- "a misguided and erroneous" ban, he insisted.
A disciplinary hearing at the halfway house was scheduled for today. VOA and U.S. Probation officials declined to comment.
Bereano's decision to continue lobbying -- thereby challenging the restriction -- was chronicled by newspapers this week, and a copy of one of the articles was attached to an official notice that he had violated terms of his work-release program. The notice and the clipping were waiting for him when he returned to the VOA on Wednesday evening.
Bereano contends that his 1994 sentence ordering work release allows him to engage in any "lawful activity," including lobbying.
But his probation officer, Renata Ramsburg, has a different view, and his work-release plan includes a "no lobbying" order.
U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson has cleared the way for Bereano to lobby, informing Ramsburg that he saw no reason not to allow it, according to Bereano's lawyer, Joshua Treen.
Nickerson said essentially the same thing in 1994 before imposing Bereano's sentence. At the time, the judge rejected the U.S. attorney's contention that Bereano had been convicted of "defrauding the public or subverting the legislative or the political process."
But in a letter sent to Nickerson on Feb. 11, Ramsburg argued that Bereano should be barred from lobbying because as a lobbyist, he had victimized the citizens of Maryland.
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.
Ramsburg said this activity victimized the citizens of Maryland. But she concluded her letter by saying: "If the court has a strong position against this restriction [against lobbying], I will not pursue the matter."
Bereano's lawyer had challenged Ramsburg's position in a letter to Nickerson on Feb. 17.
"I'm not sure what will happen," Treen said yesterday, "but my understanding is, the judge has indicated Bruce can lobby with whatever conditions are imposed by VOA."
Lawyers and prison officials say the U.S. attorney and Bureau of Prisons have wide leeway to impose restrictions and demands for accountability on those assigned to work release.
Bereano's appeal was denied last fall by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., and Nickerson was ordered to review the sentence. Nickerson increased a $20,000 fine to $30,000 and sentenced Bereano to five months' incarceration at the halfway house and five months of home detention. Nickerson had originally imposed five years' probation.
With more than 20 clients signed up for this year's 90-day session, Bereano had expected to continue as a lobbyist -- as he has since he was convicted on the mail fraud charges in 1994. He had attempted to clear that plan before he reported to the VOA for a "lockdown" indoctrination Feb. 5.
Bereano's plan has been blocked primarily by Ramsburg, the probation officer, who is one member of a team assigned to every resident of the halfway house.
In her letter to Nickerson, she argued that allowing Bereano to lobby "sends the wrong message to other lobbyists that may be tempted to violate the law, that even when detected and convicted, it will not be damaging to their careers."
"I believe that Mr. Bereano should not be permitted to remain in the same business that led to his conviction," she wrote.
Because he was convicted of offenses committed in the course of lobbying, she said, allowing him to continue "may send a message to the citizens of Maryland that we do not care about their interests and will do little to protect them, which I believe contributes to the corruption of public figures."
Ramsburg declined to comment yesterday, referring an inquiry to David E. Johnson, chief federal probation officer for the district of Maryland. Johnson did not return a telephone call yesterday.
Under present circumstances, Bereano's ability to represent clients has been curtailed. He was unable to appear at a hearing Wednesday on a proposed tobacco tax because he is required to report back to the VOA by 6 p.m.
When it was Bereano's turn to testify, a representative of the tobacco wholesalers industry took his place as a witness before the Senate Committee on Budget and Tax.
"I'm representing Bruce Bereano," he said. "He had a previous commitment. I'm sure he'd rather be here." The packed hearing room erupted in laughter.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court has asked the Justice Department to offer a defense of its mail fraud prosecution of Bereano. Late last month, the department had passed up its option of replying to Bereano's appeal of his conviction.
The justices took their first look at the appeal this week and had been expected to announce their response next week. But they found the case has enough merit to first warrant a response from the department. The court's request to the Justice Department will postpone any action until at least late March.
Bereano's appeal has been strengthened because the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has joined him in urging the justices to clarify mail fraud law. The association, like Bereano, is arguing that the law is unclear and that federal prosecutors are using the ambiguity to bring broad charges against private individuals on the theory that they deprived their clients of "honest services."
Sun staff writer Lyle Denniston contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 2/19/99