Gerry Evans had it made.
Handsome, charming and quick on his feet, he was the total lobbying package -- and a walking lesson in the insider culture of Annapolis.
He was at every fund-raiser, threw money to legislators' pet charities and had the ear of Maryland General Assembly leaders and State House reporters who particularly loved his outrageous quotes. Need a ticket to the Washington Redskins or the Rolling Stones? Gerry was the guy to see.
Before turning 40, Evans reached the top of the Maryland lobbying world a few years ago, pulling down as much as $42,000 a month representing dozens of clients. He was also spending money like water, seemingly picking up every check in sight and racking up more than $1,000 a week in expenses -- even as his firm shelled out thousands more on cigars, flowers, even a Porsche for Evans.
Evans, 44, came crashing back to Earth on Friday, as a federal jury convicted him of nine counts of mail fraud.
For the second time in six years, the State House's top-earning lobbyist was brought down by the U.S. Attorney's office in Baltimore -- each for essentially manipulating the system.
In 1994, it was Bruce C. Bereano, convicted of hiding campaign contributions made for his clients. In the Evans case, the jury found he used his insider's knowledge of Annapolis and his relationship with Baltimore state Del. Tony E. Fulton to take some of his clients -- out-of-state paint companies -- for a very expensive ride. Fulton was found not guilty on five counts while the jury could not agree on six others.
Evans, the jury found, was eager enough to fight bills opposed by his paint firms. The problem was that for three years running, no legislator introduced the bill dreaded by the entire paint industry -- a "market share" liability measure with the potential to devastate in court companies that once manufactured lead-based paint.
Rather than risk losing the companies as clients, Evans exaggerated the threat of legislation, warning repeatedly that the bill was just around the corner. And the companies responded with tens of thousands of dollars in fees for Evans to battle the phantom measure.
Evans' confidence may have proved his undoing: Testimony during the four-week federal trial showed that he boasted in fall 1998 to underlings about the "creative" steps he was taking to fool the clients. Within months, FBI agents were at his door. Friday -- 15 months later -- he was convicted.
In his opening statement to the jury, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dale P. Kelberman said the Evans-Fulton case reminded him of the symbiotic relationship between the Medussa jellyfish and a rare species of snail -- a relationship that occurs in only one place in the world: Italy's Bay of Naples.
Likewise, Kelberman said, a scheme such as the one Evans undertook could take place only in a setting such as the State House.
To accomplish the "bell-ringing" scheme, in other words, you need a place where lobbyists and legislators do business in cozy proximity. Welcome to Annapolis.
Ways of 'insiders' exposed
While the jury could not come to a decision on Fulton's alleged role in Evans' wrongdoings, the month of testimony in Courtroom 5A made one thing painfully clear: Lobbyists have become entrenched in the business and culture of Annapolis.
Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, sat through some of the trial and said she was dismayed by the "insider" world described on the stand. "If I could simply articulate how completely cut off the public is, and drive that point out, I would feel like I had done something," Skullney said. "I am amazed, not by what's going on, but by how little the insiders are aware of what this says to the outsiders, if you will."
The jury learned that lobbyists routinely draft legislation for lawmakers, research issues, and prepare lawmakers' testimony. The favors go beyond helping with legislation. Fulton, for example, turned to Evans' office to arrange a dinner for a group of Fulton's constituents touring Annapolis, according to aides to Fulton and Evans.
Hours of testimony centered on the spending habits of Evans and his clients.
Some asbestos companies represented by Evans took his advice to befriend legislators and treated several to an Orioles playoff game in 1997. The politicians attended even though those companies routinely come to Annapolis to battle legislation with huge financial implications.
Evans told the jury he routinely asks his corporate clients to spend big money -- on campaign contributions and in gifts to charities backed by lawmakers -- in addition to the staggeringly high lobbying fees he and other top lobbyists can command. It was a simple system, he suggested.
After one senator cast a deciding vote to kill a liability bill opposed by the asbestos companies, the firms, at Evans' urging, said thank you by sending a healthy contribution to a waterfowl decoy museum the senator is fond of.
For his part, Fulton told the jury that legislators routinely play hardball with companies that come to Annapolis to discuss issues. Twice, he said, he made empty threats that he would introduce lead paint legislation -- not to help Evans, but to try to force the paint firms to give to community projects for which he could take credit.
Always eager to please a member of the General Assembly, Evans helped in this pursuit. "Make him look like a hero," he urged his clients, referring to Fulton.
The paint companies said no to the request, afraid that if they sent money to placate one legislator, many more would follow with a demand.
The description of such transactions left some observers astonished. "It smacks of buying and selling influence and it's right out in the open," said Donald F. Norris, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "The legislators use their power as legislators to extort money. And the lobbyists play into that by telling their clients that you have to play the game to buy these people off."
Fulton and Evans took the stand to deny they schemed together to defraud any of Evans' lobbying clients, but they could scarcely deny that they belonged to what amounts to an elite Annapolis club of lawmakers and lobbyists. "Your friendship is important to me," Fulton wrote Evans in a letter explaining why he would not be introducing the lead paint bill.
Evans and Fulton insisted they aren't all that close, simply "professional friends" who play a little golf, take in a football game and work together on issues. But of course Evans' entire $42,000-a- month livelihood depended on the votes of Evans and the other 187 members of the Maryland legislature.
How does this play with the public? Polls show that attitudes about politicians are poisoned by the drumbeat of scandal from Annapolis and many other government centers.
Evan's attorney in the case, Robert C. Bonsib, seemed to know that. In his closing argument, Bonsib almost pleaded with the jury not to penalize his client simply because he's a lobbyist. The verdict, Bonsib said, "has nothing to do with whether we like how the system works or how transactions take place in Annapolis."
But what about the reactions of State House leaders? A task force has been studying the state's lobbying laws for the past year and it's likely to propose changes to outlaw some of the practices that were alleged in the Evans trial.
But weighing changes to better control the increasingly powerful lobbyists corps' clout with Maryland legislators has become an annual exercise in Annapolis in recent years. And every step toward tighter regulation seems to have been followed by more revelations of questionable dealings.
So laws are easy to change. Attitudes are not.
Business as usual
Many legislators dismiss criticism of their ethical standards. The legislature's ethics committee hardly blinked when it was disclosed that Evans steered a $10,000 real estate commission to Fulton -- a key element of the eventual federal indictment.
The panel opted to ask no questions of Fulton or Evans. If it had, it might have discovered that Evans had steered a similar real estate commission to Fulton in 1989 -- a deal the legislator failed to disclose to the public. That was revealed only in the course of the trial.
And nobody in power in Annapolis seemed to care that Evans also had hired in 1997 the daughter of a key House committee chairman. Her hiring prompted only one "typically nasty" line in a newspaper article, Evans testified, when asked about that hiring.
"You know how it works down there," one weary Annapolis veteran says. "The ethics law says there should be impartial judgment. That implies an arm's length relationship. But a lot of the Annapolis culture -- an almost revered culture -- is that we're all down here for 90 days working together for the common good of Maryland, so why do we need this arm's length relationship?"
Thomas W. Waldron, chief of The Sun's State House bureau, has covered Maryland government and politics since 1983.