Gerard E. Evans, who parlayed charm and top-shelf political connections into a lucrative State House lobbying business, stood chastened yesterday as a federal judge in Baltimore sentenced him to 2 1/2 years in prison for defrauding several of his clients.
U.S. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz also fined Evans $50,000 and ordered him to repay $139,000 to three paint company clients he cheated.
Motz said Evans "committed fraud and must properly pay for it." But he suggested that the crimes were symptomatic of a State House in need of reform.
"He took advantage of a culture of corruption that has been tolerated by lobbyists, legislators and the citizens of Maryland," Motz said. "The evidence in this case has revealed that there is a mess in Annapolis."
Even Evans, in front of the courthouse after the sentencing, said changes are needed in the system that used to produce for him an income of more than $1 million a year.
The General Assembly must take steps to deal with the "conflicts of interest" that he said ensnare legislators and lobbyists.
"Money has to be taken out of the process," Evans said. "It simply has to."
Once the top-earning lobbyist in Annapolis and a friend to many top officials, Evans, 44, was convicted in July of scheming to win lobbying fees from out-of-town companies by misrepresenting or exaggerating the threat of legislation that would have hurt the firms.
His co-defendant, Del. Tony E. Fulton, was acquitted on five of the 11 charges against the two men. The jury could not reach a verdict on the other six, and prosecutors formally dropped those counts against the delegate yesterday.
Evans, convicted on nine of the 11 counts, showed no emotion as Motz imposed sentence. Breaking a long silence on the case outside the courthouse later, Evans admitted mistakes but not guilt.
He said he disagreed with the jury's conclusion that he bilked his clients but acknowledged, "It was fairly uncontroverted what I did."
Appearing upbeat and relaxed, Evans said he might return to lobbying after his release from prison and said he had received "several" queries from possible clients.
Evans' lawyer, Robert C. Bonsib, said there would be no appeal of the verdict or sentence, which fell at the lenient end of what was allowed under the federal court's sentencing guidelines.
Evans and Fulton were indicted in December for allegedly conspiring to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for Evans from paint and asbestos companies by concocting the threat of legislation that would have made it easier to sue such firms.
Key evidence showed that Evans worked closely with Fulton to draft a 1998 letter in which Fulton claimed he would be introducing such a bill - even though the legislation was inimical to the interests of Evans' clients.
One former aide to Evans testified that the lobbyist used correction fluid and scissors to doctor a copy of the letter to hide from his clients the fact that he had helped draft it - an action Motz branded as "childish."
As part of the alleged scheme, Evans steered a $9,000 real estate commission to Fulton in the purchase of an Annapolis office in the fall of 1998.
The sentencing concludes the latest in a series of ethics scandals to shake state government, which prompted the expulsion of one legislator and the forced resignation of another.
The case also brought to light some of the insider practices developed by lobbyists, whose numbers and the fees they collect have soared in the past decade.
Testimony from Evans and others made clear that money - in the form of campaign contributions or donations to charities favored by legislators - can be used by special interests to win favorable treatment in the Assembly.
The Evans case has prompted a proposal by a special task force to license State House lobbyists. Among other things, the measure would allow the State Ethics Commission to bar lobbyists from working in Annapolis after criminal convictions.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who has been Evans' political mentor, said yesterday that he was confident the lobbyist legislation would pass the General Assembly during next year's legislative session.
But Miller said it was "premature" to discuss the propriety of Evans' return to lobbying after his prison term.
"Whether he's a lobbyist, an agent or a salesperson, he'll continue to use his personality," said Miller, a Prince George's Democrat.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Dale P. Kelberman, who prosecuted the case, had asked the judge to sentence Evans to as much as six years in prison. But yesterday he called Motz's sentence a fair one that achieves the prosecution's goals.
"It punishes the defendant, and it will act as a deterrent," Kelberman said. "If there are people out there thinking of doing the same thing as Mr. Evans, this will probably give them second thoughts."
There is no parole in the federal system, although Evans could shave a few months off his sentence with good behavior in prison, prosecutors said.
Kelberman called it "disheartening" that Evans had apparently been approached by potential clients interested in engaging him after he leaves jail.
"That's why we have to stay involved" in scrutinizing activities in Annapolis, the prosecutor said.
After the sentencing, Evans chatted at length with reporters in front of the courthouse, calling his conviction a "bump in the road."
"I'm a very fortunate guy," said the father of five. "I have a great wife and family."
Evans, who once served a legislative aide to Miller, embedded himself in Maryland Democratic politics. Even while he lobbied, he was a state Democratic Party official and raised money for a host of politicians, including Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
Asked what reforms were needed in Annapolis, Evans said the Assembly should hire more staff to reduce the reliance on lobbyists such as himself. And he said the legislature should go from part-time to full-time status to cut down on conflicts of interest between a lawmaker's official duties and his private financial affairs.
In deciding on the amount of restitution, Motz said it was hard to determine how much Evans had obtained fraudulently from five different clients.
Prosecutors had asserted the fraud topped $350,000, but Motz said he could confidently identify only $139,000 that was improperly received from three paint companies. He said he could not quantify the amount, if any, that was obtained illegally from a fourth paint firm or from a coalition of asbestos manufacturers.
Motz granted Evans' request that his prison term not begin before Dec. 1 and he allowed Evans to postpone paying the fine and restitution until after his release.
The sentence of Evans was much harsher than that given to another prominent State House lobbyist, Bruce C. Bereano, also convicted of federal mail fraud.
A judge in 1998 sentenced Bereano to five months in a halfway house and then five months of home detention. Bereano, though, continued to lobby in the State House during his confinement.