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Letters to court praise ex-senator who took bribes

The Baltimore Sun

From office secretaries to elected officeholders, nearly 60 people sympathetic to former state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell submitted letters in court papers yesterday ahead of his sentencing on bribery charges in federal court in Baltimore.

In more than 70 pages of passionate and personal letters about the convicted Baltimore County Democrat, Bromwell's friends - from his dry cleaner to his congressman, Democratic Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger - wax nostalgic about his accomplishments during 23 years in the General Assembly and plead for mercy in the wake of the former politician's admission of guilt.

Last night, federal prosecutors shot back, saying in papers filed in U.S. District Court that the judge on Friday should impose a prison term near eight years, the top end of the recommended sentencing guidelines.

"Many citizens have written letters on his behalf, but politicians distribute many benefits during their time in office, and most politicians who get caught selling their offices can be expected to assemble an array of friends and political allies to tell the sentencing judge that they were really good people," Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kathleen O. Gavin and Michael J. Leotta wrote in their sentencing memorandum.

They continued: "Bromwell would like this court to believe that his offensive, abusive and corrupt remarks recorded by cooperating government witnesses were an exception. ... It is unlikely that his remarks on that occasion were a departure from his character. It is far more likely that Bromwell's friends have overlooked or ignored Bromwell's true character."

Bromwell, 58, is scheduled to be sentenced after admitting that he accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in payoffs from a Baltimore construction company executive in return for securing publicly funded contracts.

Sentencing guidelines call for a federal prison term for Bromwell of at least 6 1/2 years. But his defense attorney is asking Judge J. Frederick Motz to depart downward from the recommended guidelines, based in large part on the persuasive power of the letters.

Prominent names in addition to Ruppersberger - who wrote the judge at Bromwell's request - include Edwin F. Hale Sr., chairman of 1st Mariner Bank, who had placed Bromwell on his board. Hale did not return a phone call seeking comment last night.

Other letter writers include former state Sen. Francis X. Kelly Jr., retired Baltimore County police Maj. Pat Hanges, former Maryland Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini, and Thomas Phelan, who replaced Bromwell as head of Maryland's largest insurance fund for injured employees.

Among the lesser-known are his next-door neighbor, his son's former football coach and dozens of residents of northeastern Baltimore County, where Bromwell's family owned a tavern and once dominated the local political scene.

They recounted emotional stories of Bromwell's often-unseen kindness, from his gift of Orioles tickets to a family who had never been to Camden Yards to a personal call from the then-senator to the boss of a dyslexic worker who was about to lose his job because of his disability.

"Together they tell the story of Tom Bromwell better than any sentencing memorandum possibly could," Bromwell's lawyer Barry J. Pollack wrote in court papers filed yesterday.

The correspondence paints a portrait in stark contrast to the dark image of Bromwell captured by secret FBI tapes - a swaggering, name-dropping, often profane politician who claimed to have ties to the state's most powerful who would gladly enrich Bromwell and his friends.

After the disclosure of secret FBI recordings made with a government informant, Bromwell, once one of the most powerful politicians in Annapolis as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was "branded a racist and misogynist," in the words of his own attorney after the ex-senator offered up vulgar, boastful and caustic comments about nationally recognized civil rights leaders and a past Maryland governor.

The letter-writing campaign now hopes to bolster Bromwell's chances in court and counteract the impact of the tapes. In his letter, James R. Simms, a longtime friend who works for the state police, defended Bromwell by saying that "lifelong buddies know that much of this language was just 'Big Man Talk' from Tommy and we would know not to take it to heart or too seriously."

Hundreds of pages of transcribed tapes were unsealed only months before Bromwell and his wife decided to plead guilty to leveraging his political power to help Baltimore-based Poole and Kent in exchange for more than $200,000 in cash, bogus salary and discounted home-improvement materials. His wife, Mary Patricia, admitted she accepted a salary for a no-show job at a contractor controlled by Poole and Kent in return for her husband's intervention in contract talks.

Lawyers who work in federal criminal law said the flurry of letters might be one of the few ways for the presiding judge to focus on Bromwell's accomplished life before his indictment and guilty plea.

"You have to do what you have to do, but I'm not sure I would have done the same volume of letters," said James A. Cohen, a law professor at Fordham University in New York.

Cohen said the reasons that Bromwell's attorney offered for a more lenient sentence - Bromwell's impressive legislative history, his formerly unblemished criminal record and his required treatment for heart disease - would be unlikely to cause a federal judge to impose a prison term below the recommended guidelines.

Skating quickly over the details of the public corruption case, supporters describe Bromwell in typed and handwritten correspondence as a kind soul with a generous spirit and wholesome heart. Many have known him and his family for half a century.

Still, the chief lobbyist for the Catholic Church in Maryland ripped the Bromwell of the 1980s, saying he "seemed not to care much for the work, or the discipline, or the responsibility" that should accompany the life of a truly honorable politician.

But Richard J. Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, quickly added in the same Oct. 8 letter that Bromwell transformed himself in the early 1990s into a "devoted husband, a caring father to his five children and a loyal friend who is worthy of trust."

"He is also a man of compassion, a rooter for the underdog, for those who have no presence in the corridors of power and influence," Dowling wrote. "I believe his arc is still in its ascendancy - he's got a good deal more to give."

A number of friends continue to stand by Bromwell, once a gregarious political figure now unemployed, indigent and likely to serve time behind bars.

"I realize he has pled guilty to serious mistakes, but I think he has already suffered immeasurably through a seven-year investigation," Kelly wrote to the judge.

Asked why Ruppersberger would write a letter in support of Bromwell, his spokesman in Washington said yesterday that the congressman sought to explain Bromwell's legislative prowess when Ruppersberger served as county executive.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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