'Only a $600 case' may await Bereano

September 24, 1994|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer

Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano will face trial next month with federal prosecutors able to document only $600 of the $16,000 he is alleged to have defrauded from clients.

His indictment in May followed a 17-month investigation announced at its inception by federal prosecutors. It accused him of a scheme to disguise more than $16,000 in campaign contributions by asking members of his law firm and their families to make them and then reimbursing them from firm coffers. Mr. Bereano is accused of then billing clients in the amount of the contributions.

The disclosure was made in court papers filed Sept. 14 in response to a court order that prosecutors disclose their evidence to allow Mr. Bereano to prepare his defense.

"Because the documents used in preparation of the bills, which were subpoenaed by the grand jury, are allegedly 'missing,' the government cannot reconstruct which clients were billed which amounts in any particular monthly bill," prosecutors said.

Instead, prosecutors will rely on more circumstantial evidence to win a conviction. It is a development that Mr. Bereano's lawyer contends substantially weakens the government's case.

"I said it was only a $600 case at best the day I saw the indictment," said M. Albert Figinski, Mr. Bereano's lawyer.

Prosecutors and other lawyers say it's not that simple.

Mr. Bereano, 49, the highest-paid lobbyist at the state capital, is accused of instructing employees of his law firm to make the campaign contributions to political candidates he specified between May 1990 and June 1991.

Some employees also cashed checks drawn on law firm accounts, prosecutors say, and Mr. Bereano used the money to reimburse family members for political contributions they made at his direction.

Besides using records that track the $600, the government will rely on testimony and other evidence -- including copies of checks against the Bereano and Resnick law firm totaling more than $16,000 -- to build a circumstantial case showing the improper billing, according to court records. Exactly which clients were affected is not known, a point defense lawyers say is critical and prosecutors say matters little.

"The government is not required to prove that the clients lost $16,000 nor is the government required to prove each and every component of the scheme to defraud, as long as the government proves a scheme substantially the same as the one alleged in the indictment," prosecutors said in court records.

"I'd surmise it's not going to matter," agreed Byron L. Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor.

Richard Karceski, a Towson attorney, said that, although the defense strategy may not get far legally, it could be very influential in convincing a jury.

"Jurors are really people who look to substance," he said. "The success is going to come back in the end."

More than $15,000 was contributed to the Bereano political action committee by relatives of Mr. Bereano, according to 1990 records filed with the state board of elections. The Bereano PAC and Mr. Bereano made about $20,765 in political contributions during the 1990 election year, prosecutors say.

Mr. Bereano is charged with eight counts of mail fraud, each carrying a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

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