Bereano fraud trial begins

November 11, 1994|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writer

The mail fraud trial of mega-lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano opened in Baltimore yesterday, promising an insider's look at the tangled relationships between state legislators and lobbyists.

Prosecutors in U.S. District Court promised to show how Mr. Bereano schemed to hide thousands of dollars in campaign contributions by billing them to clients as the costs of entertaining lawmakers.

"He's not here in the courtroom because of his successes. He's here today because of his excesses," prosecutor Stephen S. Zimmermann told the jury in his opening statement.

The flamboyant Mr. Bereano is the highest paid lobbyist in Annapolis.

His attorneys said he is on trial for being an effective and influential advocate for his clients, which range from insurance companies to a fishermen's association.

The testimony in coming days will focus on the thousands Mr. Bereano spent on meals, drinks and sports tickets for lawmakers he hoped to influence.

One witness will tell the jury "that's how business is done," said M. Albert Figinski, a Bereano lawyer. "It may not be the way you would like to see it done, but it is the way it's done."

The list of possible witnesses for the prosecution and defense reads like a Who's Who of Maryland government.

There's Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's County Democrat; Baltimore Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; John E. O'Donnell, executive director of the State Ethics Commission; state Sen. F. Vernon Boozer, a Baltimore County Republican; Maryland State Police Superintendent Larry W. Tolliver; former Maryland Secretary of State Winfield M. Kelly Jr.; state Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini; and Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, a Montgomery County Democrat. There's even a judge, Vincent Femia of the Prince George's County Circuit Court.

Mr. Bereano was indicted in May on charges that he defrauded clients. Prosecutors say Mr. Bereano disguised more than $16,000 in political campaign contributions by having his employees and relatives make the donations. He reimbursed them from his law firm's coffers and billed clients in the amounts of the contributions.

On the clients' bills, the expenditures were attributed to entertaining legislators, rather than to campaign contributions, prosecutors said. The indictment specifically names four clients, each of which allegedly was defrauded of $150.

In his opening statement to the jury, Mr. Figinski said some of the clients who supposedly were defrauded are satisfied with Mr. Bereano's lobbying work and do not want their money back. In fact, one client spent more than the $150 in question to comply with the government's subpoena, he said.

"The scheme that the government has developed is more a figment of conjecture than of proof," Mr. Figinski said.

Mr. Zimmermann told the jury that an employee of Mr. Bereano's destroyed many notes detailing the alleged scheme after a lawmaker chastised her for trying to disguise campaign contributions. "By throwing away those notes, she almost ensured that no one would ever know," he said.

But she failed to throw away check records and stubs, upon which the prosecution's case is based, he said.

The defense contends that the employee threw away the records after misconstruing a conversation she had with Senate President Miller. Mr. Miller asked her, " 'What's a nice girl like you doing giving money to Tommie Broadwater,' " Mr. Figinski said. The woman thought Mr. Miller meant that she might be in trouble, so she threw away the notes, he said.

Mr. Broadwater, then a state Senate candidate from Prince George's County, was convicted in 1983 of food stamp fraud.

Mr. Bereano, a lawyer himself, looked relaxed and confident in court yesterday. During jury selection, he leaned back in his chair and closely watched the potential jurors as the judge asked them questions.

Del. Frank D. Boston Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, and Del. Leslie E. Hutchinson, a Democrat from Baltimore County, dropped by to show their support for Mr. Bereano, whom some lawmakers regard as a friend.

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