Tobacco's Bully

May 05, 1994

Blowhards and bullies invariably get their comeuppance, or at least they should. A deserving candidate these days is tobacco lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who launched into a tirade of threats this week against the Howard County Council.

Mr. Bereano was trying to stop lawmakers from passing a resolution that encourages all county businesses except taverns get rid of cigarette vending machines. To its credit, the council did not back down. But that will not stop Mr. Bereano from playing out this school yard stare-down. Tuesday, he filed suit in Howard Circuit Court charging that the council lacked jurisdiction over vending machines, which are licensed by the state.

What really smacked of harassment, though, was Mr. Bereano's threat that should the court strike down the council resolution, he intends to sue individual council members because of their vote. "It's going to be fun taking their depositions," the lobbyist crowed.

Mr. Bereano's taunt pushes the envelope on acceptable political discourse. His threat to go after council members individually is an attempt to scare elected officials enough that they will shy away from exercising legitimate protection of public health.

Maryland's best-paid lobbyist will claim he's just seeking to right a wrong against the vending and tobacco interests he represents. But it seems obvious that he also wants to exact unambiguous punishment and thereby send a message to other jurisdictions not to follow Howard County's lead.

It should be noted that Mr. Bereano has tried this tactic before, after the Howard council approved a similar measure in March. His threats at that time spooked the council into withdrawing its resolution.

The council subsequently sought opinions of the county solicitor and state's attorney general, both of whom concluded that the council held immunity from such legal action. With that ammunition, the council has gained considerably more courage and should not back away this time.

Mr. Bereano argues that his legal arm-twisting is justified next to the council's arrogance in pushing the cigarette vending machine issue. Businesses in the county, Mr. Bereano contends, will read the resolution as a mandate that should be heeded at the risk of losing a zoning petition or a liquor license.

But that kind of response seems more Mr. Bereano's style than the County Council's.

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