A Master Tickles The Gag Reflex

Tim Baker

January 07, 1991|By Tim Baker

AS THE 1991 session of the General Assembly convenes this week in Annapolis, let us applaud the man who, almost single-handedly, has revived the once-flagging cause of campaign-finance reform in Maryland: Bruce C. Bereano. The issue might well have disappeared by now if it hadn't been for his highly publicized efforts to abuse the system in the last year.

Ever since the Nilson Commission recommended comprehensive campaign-finance reform in January 1987, the General Assembly has hesitated, deferred, resisted, manipulated, frustrated and ultimately defeated every effort to correct the most glaring flaw in our democracy. Many legislators would still prefer to continue that sorry history. But thanks to Mr. Bereano, the subject has jumped to the front of the legislative agenda.

It wasn't easy for Mr. Bereano to overcome legislative indifference and hostility to reform. During the last year he had to spend $129,000 of his clients' money on meals for state legislators and other officials. Give the man credit. That's a lot of power lunch. Some $36,648 went for meals between May and October, when the legislature wasn't even in session.

He spent another $33,000 on gifts for legislators. That's right. Gifts!

Look. It takes a lot of money to focus attention on some of these reform issues. Would you notice if some lobbyist spent a few measly dollars on your elected representatives? Of course not. But $33,000 on gifts! Add the $129,000 for meals and entertainment. That comes to $862 for each delegate and senator, assuming Mr. Bereano spread it around equally among all 188 members of the General Assembly.

It's hard to think about that amount of money without asking yourself the questions Mr. Bereano obviously wants us all to consider.

What's a lobbyist looking for when he spends that kind of money? He wouldn't want to buy a little influence, would he? Of course not, Mr. Bereano assures us. He's not trying to influence the lawmakers. As he explained to The Evening Sun last month, his goal is only ''getting to know them better, sharing experiences, camaraderie, relationship-building.''

See what he's doing? He's made himself a caricature of a lobbyist in a corrupt system. He's become a political cartoon. Mr. Bereano obviously intends to dramatize for us questions right out of a civics textbook.

Should we permit lobbyists to use money to influence the legislative process? Why should a lobbyist ever be allowed to give any gift to a legislator?

The man's a pedagogical genius. He's even demonstrated the inadequacies of the existing disclosure rules. He found loopholes for all of the $162,000 he spent on gifts, meals and entertainment. He cleverly arranged his funding so that he didn't have to reveal the name of a single recipient of his largess when he filled out the disclosure forms required by the State Ethics Commission.

Can you think of a better way for him to arouse our suspicions? He knows exactly what we'll think. If he had nothing to hide, why would he go to all that trouble to hide everything?

Mr. Bereano's expenditures demonstrate what a skillful showman can do with a few props. But his real talents come out when he starts to raise campaign contributions. In that field, for example, he has epitomized for our edification almost everything that's wrong with political-action committees.

To start with, Mr. Bereano is affiliated with at least 11 PACs. In the last election those 11 handed out more than $260,000 to state candidates. In case anyone missed the point, he even formed his own ''Bereano PAC'' which contributed $19,400.

That kind of money generates enormous leverage for a lobbyist when he comes around after the election and tries to advance his clients' interests. Of course, he strategically concentrates the funds on incumbents who sit on the commit- tees which control (( the bills his clients care about. Mr. Bereano then adds his own formidable ability to solicit political contributions. They are made directly to his candidates. Since state law does not require him to report those fund-raising efforts, only he and a grateful candidate know how much money he has funneled into a legislator's re-election.

The legislative leaders in Annapolis have had enough of this. They realize how much Mr. Bereano's excesses have embarrassed the General Assembly and fed public cynicism about government. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. has decided to support even stronger measures than the ones he pushed through the Senate last year. House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. has reached the same conclusion and will not permit reform to die in the House this session.

The two leaders intend to cooperate on a new and tougher package of campaign-finance restrictions. It should include a flat prohibition against political fund-raising by lobbyists. Opponents will argue that lobbyists should merely disclose their political fund-raising activities. But disclosure will not sever the obscene relationship among lobbyists, money and elected officials.

If the General Assembly doesn't adopt a flat prohibition, Mr. Bereano will simply have to resume his educational activities until legislators finally learn the lesson. He knows that in politics, scandal is the most effective teaching tool. Perhaps he's already selecting his co-stars for his next morality play.

I hear it'll be called ''The Bereano Five.''

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