Ethics panel needs support from courts


The message is simple: lobbyists who run afoul of Maryland law these days will face severe punishment.

The message was loud and clear last week as the State Ethics Commission imposed a $5,000 fine and 10-month lobbying suspension on high-powered political broker Bruce C. Bereano for a contingency fee agreement he had with a client - a violation of the law, the commission said.

It was the second major sanction handed down by the panel since state lawmakers gave it the authority to punish illegal activity by lobbyists two years ago. Last October, the commission barred one-time Annapolis powerhouse Gerard E. Evans from representing clients before the General Assembly because of his 2000 conviction on charges that he bilked his clients by concocting a phony threat of harmful legislation.

Bereano and Evans - both of whom at one time generated $1 million a year in lobbying business - are appealing the commission's rulings in Maryland courts.

Now the only question that remains is whether the courts will back the commission's rulings and ensure it is an agency with a serious bite and not just a loud bark. As things stand, Maryland's ethics commission appears to have the broadest powers of any such agency in the country.

"Looking across the country, there are very few ethics commissions that bring these kinds of sanctions against lobbyists," said Peggy Kerns, director for the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "What I see is Maryland's legislature is determined to get rid of the bad apples. They have given the Maryland ethics commission the power to do just that."

The rulings handed down against Bereano and Evans are exactly what lawmakers expected from the commission to help curtail illicit activity in the growing and lucrative lobbying business in Annapolis.

"The feeling was that for the portion of Maryland ethics law that relates to lobbyists, for it to be effective, the commission had to have some teeth," said former Del. Donald B. Robertson, chairman of the Study Commission on Lobbyist Ethics, which recommended the expanded sanctioning authority.

Like other states across the nation, Maryland experienced a boom in lobbyist activity over the past couple of decades. Registered lobbyists in Annapolis has more than tripled from about 200 in the early 1980s to 698 now, according to the ethics commission. They represent more than 1,000 employers.

The ethics commission's most recent annual report showed that Gary R. Alexander, the top income-producing lobbyist for the one-year period ending Oct. 31, 2002, received $881,693 in compensation. Bereano ranked fourth during that period with $648,149, but first during the last legislative session that ended in April, with $600,000 for that three-month period alone.

Part of the reason for the growth in the lobbying business was what some viewed as a need for balance of power. A button once printed and distributed throughout the State House jokingly stated, "Lobbyists are the people you hire to protect you from the people you elect."

But as lobbying flourished, so did concerns about illegal dealings by some of the state's most prominent lobbyists, which prompted a federal judge to criticize Maryland's lobbying world as having a "culture of corruption."

Maryland lawmakers decided they wanted some controls.

"We wanted Maryland to be in the forefront of lobbyist ethics," said former Sen. Michael J. Collins, who was chairman of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics and a member of Robertson's study commission. "I don't think there's a culture of corruption in Annapolis," Collins said. "But there are obviously people who have violated the law."

One of the most noted scandals was the 1994 federal jury conviction of Bereano on mail-fraud charges related to a scheme to funnel illegal campaign contributions to Maryland politicians. He was sentenced to 10 months of work release and home detention and stripped of his license to practice law.

But those actions were taken in the courts. At the time, the ethics commission had no power to take action in such a case. Until the new expanded powers, the commission could fine only those who filed late reports but it could not suspend or revoke lobbying licenses as it can now.

Then in 2000, a jury convicted Evans on charges related to the scheme to defraud his clients.

With its new powers, the ethics commission decided two years after his conviction to bar Evans from lobbying the legislature - a decision Evans has said is unfair and unreasonable, particularly because the case preceded the agency's new powers.

Bereano found himself under scrutiny again, after it came to light a year ago that he had entered a questionable agreement with Mercer Ventures Inc in 2001. The company was working on a $42 million contract to provide foster-care services for 500 Baltimore children.

The commission ruled that Bereano illegally accepted a 1 percent contingency fee of the first year's payments for any contract he helped the company secure from the state.

Bereano, a lobbyist since 1979, had every reason to be cautious.

Every law enforcement quarter had its eye on him because of his past conviction. And he is trying to regain his right to practice law.

Suzanne S. Fox, executive director of the ethics commission, said Bereano of all people should have known better, especially since the commission's new authority includes a requirement that it provide training for all registered lobbyists - training Bereano had received.

"He knew the law," Fox said.

Bereano said he believes the commission targeted him because its members didn't like him, in particular Fox. He said he believes the commission exceeded its authority in handling his case.

But Charles O. Monk II, the immediate past chairman of the ethics commission who resigned last month, disagrees.

"It's my belief that this case and the commission's new responsibilities under the law sends a message that lobbyists are subject to a body that is going to take the actions it deems necessary," Monk said. "I think it's a good thing for Maryland. We, of course, await the decision of the courts to see if they agree."

An article in Sunday's Perspective section stated incorrectly that the State Ethics Commission ruled that lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano illegally received a 1 percent contingency fee. In fact, the commission ruled that he illegally entered a contingency fee agreement. The Sun regrets the error.
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