After four weeks of testimony from dozens of witnesses, the federal mail fraud case against a state legislator and a top-earning State House lobbyist may hinge on the jury's view of a seemingly innocuous two-page letter.
The letter - sent by state Del. Tony E. Fulton to then-Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in October 1998 - seeks the mayor's support for legislation targeting paint and asbestos manufacturers represented by lobbyist Gerard E. Evans.
On trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Fulton and Evans are charged with scheming between 1997 and 1999 to generate fees for the lobbyist by exaggerating, or even concocting, the threat of hostile legislation aimed at some of his clients.
The letter is crucial because it appears to offer the clearest evidence that the two men worked together to mislead Evans' clients. Prosecutors allege that Evans wrote the letter, even though it was inimical to the interests of his clients, and doctored it to make it appear that he had gotten it from Schmoke, rather than from Fulton, his supposed legislative opponent.
In testimony the past three days, Evans, 44, has denied writing the letter - though he acknowledged receiving a draft from Fulton and making at least one change in the text.
But in some of the most compelling testimony of the trial, a former associate of Evans appeared to support prosecutors' assertions that the lobbyist wrote the letter for Fulton, a West Baltimore Democrat with 14 years in the House of Delegates. She said Evans boasted that it would compel the paint companies to rehire him.
"He said ... it was going to insure that our contract was going to be extended with the paint clients for the next [General Assembly] session," Sonya Healy, a former legal associate in Evans' office, testified.
And James B. Davis III, another former associate in Evans' office, testified that the lobbyist used what Evans called "creative lobbying techniques" to alter the letter to cover up that he had gotten it directly from Fulton.
But Evans testified yesterday that he had not altered the document. "I didn't ask James Davis to do that, and I didn't do it myself," Evans told the jury.
In his testimony last week, Fulton, 48, denied that he schemed with Evans and said he drafted the letter to Schmoke - though he shared it with Evans in advance.
Closing arguments Monday
The case is scheduled to conclude Monday with closing arguments and is expected to go to the jury that afternoon for deliberations. Whatever the verdict, the trial has cast more unflattering light on the high-stakes world of State House lobbying - an industry that has soared in size and influence in recent years.
During the weeks of testimony, Evans and others have described an arena in which legislators and lobbyists typically work and play together in cozy proximity. And Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause/Maryland, said the trial has reinforced her views of the way business really gets done at the State House.
"There is nothing here that is surprising or astounding," she said. "You see it every day in Annapolis. What's really startling is how little of this makes its way in this context to the public."
The climax of the trial came over the past three days as Evans tried to explain his actions to the jury, testifying that he tried to accurately report to his clients the threat of liability legislation that would have made it easier to sue paint companies.
Although no lead paint legislation was introduced, Evans collected $400,000 in fees from clients concerned about such a bill in the period from 1997 to 1999.
Evans repeatedly directed the jury's attention to Baltimore lawyer Peter G. Angelos - a major player in the State House - saying he was the real threat to the paint and asbestos companies.
Testimony from Evans and others indicated that Angelos began discussing legislation targeting paint companies in 1994 and ultimately introduced such a bill in the Assembly this year - after the two men had been indicted.
"He's followed through on every game plan he's set about," Evans said of Angelos long-term legislative efforts.
But prosecutors described Evans' testimony about Angelos as a "smokescreen." Rather, they contend, the jury should focus on the alleged efforts of Evans and Fulton to deceive Evans' clients.
Fulton twice threatened legislation against those firms, first in January 1997 and again with the 1998 letter. But in his testimony, Fulton acknowledged that he never intended to push the lead paint legislation.
He testified that he threatened the bills not to help Evans win lobbying fees but to pressure some of the lobbyist's clients to spend money on charitable projects in his district. Evans' clients refused to make such donations, despite some prodding from Evans.
Skullney of Common Cause said testimony has made clear "the transactional nature of business" in state government. "I will give you this if you give me that," Skullney said. "At bottom, it is legislative extortion."
As part of the alleged scheme, prosecutors also contend, Evans steered a $10,000 real estate commission to Fulton in 1998 - the largest commission he had received in 15 years of selling properties. But Fulton testified that he worked hard to earn the commission.
The gregarious Evans is part of a small group of full-service State House lobbyists, men who have the best connections to key officials and who are willing to give money to election campaigns, find money for lawmakers' pet charitable projects, and pick up the tab in Annapolis after hours.
During the trial, Evans and others described a world where lobbyists and legislators work and play closely - and remain friends even after doing battle over issues.
More than 500 lobbyists try to influence the 188-member legislature on behalf of a host of special interests - an industry that accounts for more than $20 million in spending. Only 10 years ago, special interests were spending just $7.5 million on Annapolis lobbyists, according to reports filed with the state.
By the mid-1990s, nobody in the business was bigger than Evans, who was billing clients more than $1 million a year. At one point he was making $42,000 a month, driving a Porsche leased by his firm and charging expenses of more than $1,000 a week.
But the normally voluble Evans maintained a low-key, almost pensive tone on the witness stand this week, only occasionally offering a glimpse of his State House style - as in this exchange yesterday.
"Has Delegate Fulton ever pressured you to do anything for his personal benefit?" Fulton's attorney, Richard D. Bennett, asked Evans.
Evans replied with a straight face: "Other than to ask me to change an occasional golf score here or there, no."