Lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano is inviting Maryland legislators planning to attend a legislative conference in San Francisco to join him on "a spectacular luncheon cruise" next Wednesday afternoon - a time when lawmakers have a full schedule of work-related events.
Bereano, who was disciplined last month by the State Ethics Commission for violating Maryland's lobbying law, urged lawmakers to set aside the hours from noon to 4 p.m. that day to sail the San Francisco Bay on the 103-foot sailing vessel Hawaiian Chieftain.
The invitation, which appears legal, takes advantage of a loophole in state law that allows lobbyists more freedom in entertaining legislators at out-of-state conferences than it permits them in Maryland.
Wednesday afternoon, however, is one of the busiest times for senators and delegates attending the annual gathering of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Lawmakers, most of whom are traveling at taxpayer expense, will have their choice of almost 20 workshops on issues ranging from criminal sentencing strategies to election reform to stem cell research to transportation infrastructure.
Or they can choose to accept Bereano's invitation to travel to the tall ship's berth in Sausalito and cruise around the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz and other scenic highlights of the bay at the expense of his client, Comcast Cablevision.
Some of the San Francisco-bound lawmakers say they are appalled that Bereano would even extend such an invitation.
"I think it reflects badly on all of us, because when someone schedules an event like that, it implies we're going out there to play instead of to learn," said Del. Joan F. Stern, a Montgomery County Democrat. "I think it's offensive to serious legislators."
Last night, Comcast spokesman David H. Nevins said the company was not aware that Bereano had scheduled the event at a time that conflicted with conference events. He said the company would look into the possibility of rescheduling the cruise.
William G. Somerville, the General Assembly's ethics counsel, said that when a lobbyist entertains legislators in Maryland, the invitation must be extended to the full General Assembly, a particular committee or a recognized delegation. A lobbyist cannot buy a meal for an individual legislator.
But when the lawmakers are at out-of-state conferences, Somerville said, lobbyists can "pick and choose" which ones they would wine and dine individually or in a group.
Partly for that reason, the NCSL conference has become a magnet for many of the state's high-powered lobbyists. More than two dozen companies, associations and lobbying firms will have representatives at the conference. Next Wednesday night, the Maryland Government Relations Association, an umbrella group of lobbyists, will sponsor a "Maryland Night" dinner for legislators.
"It's going to be a feeding frenzy out there, and Bruce and all the other top dogs know this is their chance to drink and schmooze with no bad press or political fallout," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland.
Bereano, who continues to lobby as he appeals the commission's 10-month suspension of his registration on charges that he signed an illegal contingency contract, has a history of lavish entertainment at out-of-state conferences.
Three years ago, in Biloxi, Miss., Bereano rented a 68-foot schooner for a four-hour cruise on the Gulf of Mexico - complete with beer, wine and food - for Maryland lawmakers attending the Southern Legislative Conference.
Like this year's cruise, that one took place during the conference's working sessions.
Nicole Moore, a spokeswoman for the NCSL, said the organization leaves time free in the evenings for social events such as Bereano's cruise.
"It is suggested that events such as these take place in the time we leave open for them," Moore said.
Del. Elizabeth Bobo said she plans to attend a workshop that afternoon on predatory lending rather than go on the cruise with Bereano. The Howard County Democrat said she is surprised that Comcast would want to be associated with a "pretty blatant" effort to distract legislators from their work.
"It's in effect an invitation not to participate in the official workshops of the conference," Bobo said.
Nevins, whose company is one of Bereano's largest clients, said that was not Comcast's intent.
"We'll take a serious look at moving the event so it does not conflict with the reason our Maryland legislators are attending the conference in the first place," Nevins said.
Bereano has long been among the most powerful and high-earning lobbyists in Maryland. Convicted on federal mail fraud charges in 1994 and disbarred in 2000, he managed to hold on to his client base and wield influence in Annapolis through his connections with powerful legislators. He did not return phone calls yesterday seeking his comments.
The presiding officers of the Senate and the House of Delegates said it's up to individual legislators to decide whether to accept Bereano's invitation but emphasized that they won't be attending.
"Each one of these legislators are adults, and they should be treated that way and held accountable for their actions," said Busch.
"It's something that's questioned each year when Bruce does it, but it's not illegal," said Miller. He said he hoped senators on the trip would participate in the NCSL work sessions.
Bereano's luncheon cruise is apparently legal because of another quirk in Maryland law.
Somerville said that if a lobbyist were to invite legislators on a cruise in or out of the state without serving food and drink, it would be an impermissible gift under Maryland law. But when refreshments are served, that makes the ship simply an unusual venue for a legal reception, he said.