Bereano's indictment fails to name his politician pals

May 29, 1994|By ROGER SIMON

There is a certain irony to the recent indictment of Annapolis lobbyist Bruce Bereano: He is charged with defrauding people who probably couldn't care less.

He is accused of padding his bills to his clients so he could take that money -- about $16,000 -- and illegally contribute it to politicians.

And you can imagine how outraged his clients must be.

"Bruce is using our money to influence politicians? How awful!"

Clients want lobbyists to buy politicians. That is what lobbying is. And it is difficult to believe Bereano's clients actually feel ill-used by him.

No, it is the U.S. attorney for Maryland who is upset with Bereano. The U.S. attorney says Bereano has broken the law and now must pay the price: a maximum of $2 million in fines and 40 years in prison.

But do not fit Bereano out for prison stripes quite yet.

First, he is merely indicted, not convicted. He may even be innocent, for all I know.

Second, he can always plea bargain to the lesser charge of: "Gee, I didn't know I was giving them cash, I thought I was giving them Super Bowl tickets!"

Or, even if he is found guilty, hardly anybody does hard time for such shenanigans these days.

In a society that is so short of prison space that we are letting rapists and murderers out early, can we really fill cells with lobbyists who give money to politicians?

If that's going to happen, we'd better build a lot more prisons.

I have no reason to like Bruce Bereano. He is the chief shill in Maryland for the tobacco industry, an industry that kills millions in pursuit of profit.

But if I don't sound too outraged by what Bereano is accused of it is because I am not.

It is what lobbyists do legally in Maryland that really outrages me.

Shortly after I got here, I had a long talk with a delegate from the Maryland General Assembly, who agreed to speak frankly about lobbying if I kept his name out of it.

We think of lobbyists as buying lunches for pols and handing out Orioles tickets, and they do all those things, the delegate said. But they do something else.

"They can draft the bill for you," the delegate said.

You mean lobbyists actually write laws here? I asked.

"Sometimes, sure," he said, "and after they write it, they line up sponsors for it."

And what legislators would a lobbyist line up as sponsors? Well, he would probably go after the legislators he has given money to.

"A simple committee member might not get all that much money," the delegate told me, "but a committee chairman, well, a chairman can get lobbyist money out the wazoo."

And, of course, it is not just campaign contributions.

"I heard stories that you would go to the race track with a lobbyist and he would go to the ticket window and buy a ticket on every horse in the race just to make sure you got a winner," the delegate said.

But this has no effect on how you vote? I asked.

"Of course it has an effect," the delegate said. "I will hear from a colleague that so-and-so can't vote for a certain bill because he got a big contribution from a lobbyist who opposes it."

That is the carrot that lobbyists carry. But they also carry a big stick.

"A lobbyist will come to you and ask you to support his bill or else he will kill your bill," the delegate said.

C'mon, I said, how can a lobbyist kill a bill?

"It happened to me," he said. "I didn't go along, and my bill was killed."

The lobbyist didn't cast the killing votes. The pols he bought cast the killing votes.

Consider: Bruce Bereano is indicted for illegally giving money to politicians, but no politician is indicted for taking that money.

The names of the pols who took the money have not been disclosed and, according to the U.S. attorney's office, they are not under investigation.

And I don't believe that the pols did not know Bereano was funneling them dough. When a lobbyist does you a favor, he tells you about it so you are in his debt.

So Bereano is not the only villain here. He is merely the only villain indicted.

So let us show a little understanding and also a little mercy:

If Bereano is found guilty and he does go to prison, let's try to get him a cell in the smoking section.

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