Panel's hearing for Bereano questioned

April 05, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writer

An anti-smoking activist has asked Maryland legislators to determine whether the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee gave preferential treatment to a tobacco lobbyist last month.

In a March 29 letter to the General Assembly's ethics committee, Dr. Joseph A. Adams complained that Judiciary Chairman Joseph F. Vallario Jr. gave a lobbyist a special hearing on tobacco bills.

Mr. Vallario allowed Bruce C. Bereano, the Tobacco Institute's man in Annapolis, to testify on the legislation March 14, three days after its scheduled public hearing March 11.

Mr. Bereano was at an out-of-state basketball game with his son during the hearing but, with Mr. Vallario's permission, he addressed the panel at the later meeting.

"This situation creates at least the appearance that Mr. Bereano is getting special treatment on the basis of the close relationship he has cultivated with legislators," wrote Dr. Adams, a Towson physician who belongs to the statewide Coalition for a Smoke Free Maryland.

Mr. Bereano is a lawyer who spent tens of thousands of dollars on meals, receptions, sports tickets and gifts for legislators last session.

The doctor's complaint is expected to be on today's agenda of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics. "It's a matter of some urgency, so I'm sure it will come up," said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., who is co-chairman of the ethics panel.

"We will have to look hard to see if there is any potential violation. Offhand, I can't think of one. But that doesn't mean there isn't one," said Mr. Montague, a Baltimore lawyer and Democrat.

Mr. Vallario, a Prince George's County Democrat, has denied treating Mr. Bereano differently from the way he treats others. He said he has allowed a few legislators to testify late and that he would extend the same courtesy to citizens who asked in advance, as Mr. Bereano did.

Mr. Montague, a member of Mr. Vallario's committee, confirmed that the chairman "has on a number of occasions made accommodations for people who wanted to testify" but could not attend a hearing.

He allowed other lobbyists to testify minutes or hours late if they missed a hearing because they were speaking to other committees, Mr. Montague said.

The chairman also let a citizen testify after he missed a hearing, Mr. Montague said.

Those instances, however, did not attract public attention. "People pay attention to it when it's lobbyist Bereano, for obvious reasons," Mr. Montague said.

Mr. Bereano was the highest-paid lobbyist in Annapolis last session.

A federal grand jury is examining his lobbying practices and political fund-raising activities. The probe began in December 1992 as an investigation into allegations of irregularities involving the state's purchase of new lottery computers.

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