A trial of former state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell could pull some of the most influential leaders in into a courtroom, focusing attention on how relationships between politicians and business leaders - often built through money and favors - can shape the course of legislation and state affairs.
In a federal indictment released this week, prosecutors described how Bromwell and his legislative aides asked some of the most prominent figures in to intervene on behalf of a mechanical contracting company, Poole and Kent.
Specifically, Bromwell and his aides asked former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, then-chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, and the office of Comptroller William Donald Schaefer to help resolve a dispute over cost overruns on a state project.
No one has suggested there is anything wrong in such constituent service by state entities; it is Bromwell who allegedly broke the law by taking bribes from the company in exchange for his efforts.
But if the case goes to trial, Hoffman and representatives of the comptroller's office would likely be asked to testify. They and other politicians, lobbyists and state government leaders would talk about the inner workings of - about how a phone call between friends can secure a meeting, kill an amendment or sway an agency's decision.
The backdrop of a trial would be a Byzantine world of lobbyists and lawmakers that has been repeatedly investigated by intrepid prosecutors over decades.
The list of Maryland political figures accused of using their office for personal gain includes former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew; former Gov. Marvin Mandel; and former Sen. Larry Young and former Del. Tony E. Fulton, both of Baltimore. Agnew was a Republican, the rest Democrats.
During Fulton's trial five years ago - he stood accused of introducing bogus legislation so a lobbyist friend could collect fees by fighting it - a federal judge encapsulated his perception of by saying a "culture of corruption" pervaded the town.
The phrase resonated widely and continues to be used today.
"Marylanders view State Circle with great skepticism," said D. Bruce Poole, a former delegate and ethics committee member who helped draft Maryland's ethics laws. "The reason the notion of 'culture of corruption' stuck is because it reinforced what most Marylanders view.
"As someone who sat in the legislature, and was on the ethics commission and is now on the outside, I will tell you that generally State Circle runs a clean shop," Poole said. "But there have been and are people who operate in a climate of corruption, and it tends to be when they do, they do it big time."
The 30-count Bromwell indictment includes allegations that Poole and Kent paid the senator $80,000 a year - in the form of a bogus salary to his wife, who was running a shell company set up to receive state contracts for women-owned firms - to remain in office and help Poole and Kent on state jobs.
Bromwell had considered resigning in 2000 to become head of the state Injured Workers Insurance Fund, a quasi-public agency. He delayed his resignation until 2002 and took the insurance position that year.
Part of Bromwell's influence peddling, according to the indictment, included reaching out to other state officials to help Poole and Kent.
Prosecutors say Bromwell asked Hoffman, the budget committee chairwoman, to convene a meeting with state General Services officials to settle a dispute over cost overruns at the Juvenile Justice Center in Baltimore. Poole and Kent was the contractor and wanted to be paid.
Hoffman, who appeared before the grand jury last month, acknowledged that Bromwell asked for the meeting but said she did not find the request to be out of the ordinary.
"It was a matter of routine," she said this week. "It is not unusual to have a meeting where you bring parties together and say 'Can you work it out?'"
Prosecutors also accuse Bromwell, a former chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, of exerting influence by contacting the comptroller's office and asking that a $2.96 million payment be "expedited" to Poole and Kent.
Schaefer said he never spoke to Bromwell about the transaction, and that his office did nothing wrong.
"He wouldn't ask for anything special, and I don't remember him asking for anything special," Schaefer said yesterday. "He never once came up to me and said, 'I want to get more money.'"
Michael Golden, a spokesman for Schaefer, confirmed that a Poole and Kent payment was rushed in June 2000. But he said that the office has frequently expedited payments for vendors as a courtesy, and that checks are issued only after work is completed and invoices are approved.
"As long as we have verification that they are eligible, then they are done," Golden said. "We consider it good customer service."
Like any capital, is a place with unique customs developed over time. While those customs seem efficient and transparent to those operating inside State Circle, others might view them differently.
"The people who do the indicting don't understand the process in or anyplace else," said Frank A. DeFilippo, a former press secretary to Mandel and a longtime state political commentator. The meetings and phone calls described in the indictment, he said "are routine."
What is not routine, officials say, is a lawmaker accepting bribes to stay in office.
After past indictments, the General Assembly passed laws that changed the capital's rules, such as prohibiting lobbyists from buying meals for individual legislators and requiring them to register and disclose their clients. The legislature also tightened limits on campaign contributions, money that critics say buys access.
But even reformers say legislation can't guarantee honest behavior.
"The indictment suggests that the waters of corruption run very deep indeed," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. "You can stare into the depths and see disturbing things on disclosure forms or campaign finance forms, but the truth is much worse."
D. Bruce Poole was incorrectly identified as a former state senator in the print edition. The Sun regrets the error.