State to aid in defense against suit

May 04, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

State Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. said yesterday that his office will help Howard County's legal staff defend against a $1.5 million lawsuit filed against the county by a powerful tobacco lobbyist.

Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist for the Tobacco Institute, filed the suit yesterday morning in Howard Circuit Court after the County Council voted 4-1 Monday night to urge local businesses to get rid of cigarette vending machines, especially those that are accessible to minors.

"We feel the tobacco lobby people are very wrong on this issue," Mr. Curran said. "Council members may discuss the issue of the health of children, which is what this resolution is about.

"We pledged our support against the intimidation tactics of the tobacco lobby, and we will provide it. I would have expected these tactics from the [National Rifle Association] or the gun lobby, but I did not think the tobacco lobby would resort to this type of thing."

Mr. Bereano, who filed a similar suit in March when the council appeared to be ready to pass a nearly identical resolution, predicted he would win the latest suit.

"After I win, I will sue the individual council members" who voted for the resolution, Mr. Bereano said.

The council had no right to consider the resolution, Mr. Bereano said, because the Maryland Court of Appeals has ruled that only the General Assembly can regulate cigarette vending machines.

He is asking for $500,000 in compensatory damages from the county for his client, Allied Vending Inc. of Beltsville, and $1 million in punitive damages. He said he would sue individual council members for the same amount.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday that he could not comment on the suit until he has discussed it with County Solicitor Barbara Cook. Ms. Cook said she will file an answer to the suit within a month.

Mr. Bereano says in his lawsuit that passage of the vending machine resolution violates state antitrust laws and interferes with the economic relationships his client has established with 10 Howard County restaurants.

A clause in the resolution calling on county residents to "join the council in commending and supporting all of those businesses and other entities which do remove vending machines from their premises" amounts to an illegal boycott, the suit says.

"Individual officials, employees and agents of defendant Howard County have combined and conspired with each other, with businesses which have or wish to have cigarette vending machines, and with members of the general public to unreasonably restrain cigarette vending machine operators," according to the suit.

Mr. Curran said that his office is well-versed in antitrust matters and will offer its expertise to county attorneys.

He also said his office will provide to county attorneys its analysis of the rights of council members and other legislators to express opinions on an issue without fear of being sued.

"There is a very important principle at stake that can affect any legislative body," Mr. Curran said: whether they have to worry about potential lawsuits when making legislative decisions.

The suit is Mr. Bereano's second legal clash with the county on the smoking resolution.

In March, on the day council members were to vote on the previous resolution, Mr. Bereano sued four of the five members on virtually the same grounds that he is using in his suit against the county.

After the March resolution was rewritten to his liking, Mr. Bereano withdrew the earlier suit.

Shortly afterward, the county solicitor and Mr. Curran advised the council that its members are "absolutely immune from suit for actions they took in consideration and enactment of the resolution."

The county has 30 days to respond to Mr. Bereano's suit.

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