If General Assembly leaders don't hear the thunder of an angry populace demanding tough, new restrictions on lobbyists, they must be deaf. That was the unmistakable message this week from the conviction, on all charges, of super-lobbyist Bruce Bereano for defrauding his clients. As one juror put it, what Bereano did was "immoral . . . He was deceiving everybody."
What was on display in the Bereano trial was the underside of Annapolis politics and government. In that arena, lobbyists are the hidden powers. Their influence over elected officials and their growing arrogance pose real dangers. Lobbyists such as Bereano befriend legislators, treat them like royalty, tend to their every need and fill their campaign coffers at election time. In return, indebted legislators vote the lobbyist's way more often than not.
It was this look at lobbyists at work that helped persuade the federal jury to convict Bereano in a case that the trial judge admitted was "thin." What they saw repulsed them: A lobbyist who used his parents, ex-wife, children and employees in schemes to funnel campaign contributions to candidates in excess of the limit allowed by law. A lobbyist who made three-quarters of a million dollars by gaining influence with legislators who could help kill or pass favored legislation. A lobbyist who billed clients for campaign donations to candidates the clients opposed.
Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg. Bereano may have been a pioneer in modern-day lobbying, but he is now just another wealthy player in this lucrative game of purchasing power. Dozens of lobbyists rake in six-figure amounts from clients who expect them to manipulate legislation. Bereano was the biggest and most successful practitioner, but he had already been eclipsed by other aggressive influence-peddlers with closer ties to Assembly leaders.
It is the perception of lobbyists calling the shots that turns off the public. Voter rejection of so many incumbents this fall was linked to a belief that senators and delegates are too easily seduced by the lobbyists' siren calls. Bereano's conviction will reinforce that notion. And his continued activity as a lobbyist in the upcoming General Assembly session, while he awaits sentencing, will taint the entire legislative process in the public's eyes.
House Speaker Casper Taylor and Senate President Mike Miller had better react. It is time for tough restrictions on lobbyists. Gift-giving, except in rare circumstances, should be banned -- including all those free tickets to sporting events. So should most lobbyist spending on legislators' food and drinks. If a legislator wants to eat a bagel with a lobbyist, or a prime-rib dinner, the legislator should pay his or her own bill. That's what the public expects, and that's what legislative leaders should insist upon.