Annapolis Super-lobbyist Bereano Finds Himself... Paying The Price

April 16, 1995|By C. FRASER SMITH

When he is sentenced for mail fraud this Friday, lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano will be picking up the tab for politicians one more time.

The man who would always spring for lunch or Redskins tickets or campaign cash will take the fall for elected officials accustomed to big favors.

He will be sentenced for fraud -- for burying illegal campaign contributions in the reimbursements he claimed from his clients.

He says he will appeal. But if his conviction stands, he may serve time in prison, pay a fine and lose his license to practice law. He might still be able to lobby, but his former eminence will be gone.

He was convicted, he insists bitterly, of being a lobbyist. It might be more accurate to say he was convicted of being Bereano: of over-reaching gleefully in pursuit of legislative friends, men and women who would vote for his bills or against the bills of his enemies. Sure, he used argument -- often and skillfully -- but there was so much more.

The essence was fund raising. He wanted a linkage between campaign contributions and his own interests, whatever they might be. That under-standing took the game far beyond debating points.

At its worst, the Bereano system put the democratic process at the disposal of those who could buy $100 tickets to events thrown by the "Friends of . . . Whomever." He was a one-man ticket-selling network, anxious to move 'em by the tableful.

The fund-raising and ethics laws, which he had helped to write as a young lawyer, put the burden for compliance on the giver. The legislator was spared, of course.

Did Bereano buy the process for his clients? Nothing quite so crass.

His success depended, not on any single gift or dinner of whatever cost, but on an atmosphere of solicitude, responsiveness and connections. He could take on 50 or more clients, an impossible load, because he had access to the most powerful legislators.

For years, he held off efforts to curb smoking, the sale or advertising of cigarettes to minors and the like. He relied on a full quiver of techniques, including his assertion that smoking rights were as important as civil rights or abortion rights. He wove together coalitions. Last year, a smoking ban was ordered -- by the governor, by regulation -- to get around Bereano's power to obstruct.

This year, though he was not representing the Tobacco Institute, he still had some of the vending interests in his stable of clients. Using the old arguments, he helped pass legislation that put exemptions into the new law for bars and restaurants. Lobbyist's law: Kill the bad bills when you can, amend them when you can't.

On Friday, the penalty for being too much a part of the process will fall, not on the General Assembly members he served, but on him. It is another facet of being Bereano that he was willing, up to now, to take the heat, to pick up the check. Everything he did was an implicit IOU.

He was the passionate advocate in Annapolis of the Tobacco Institute, and he gladly absorbed the criticism leveled at tobacco interests. After his conviction last fall, though, the Institute let him go. Other clients moved away as well.

Few will be sympathetic. If he went too far, well, wasn't that Bruce?

One of his competitors, Gerard Evans, put it this way several years ago: "He should remember what happened to Humpty Dumpty."

In 1991, though, the legislative demand for fund-raising favors grew so intense that lobbyists went to presiding officers of the General Assembly to ask for relief -- from legislators insistent upon help with fund raising. A series of reforms was passed, significantly separating the lobbyist from fund raising. The pressure has been reduced at least until Bereano's successors decide that fund raising will provide some advantage in the closely fought war of arguments.

Once again, Bereano has been the fulcrum of reform. Throughout the legislative session that ended Monday, some legislators insisted "reform" had been necessitated by his conviction. But the Assembly leaders were conflicted.

They wanted to disown his crime, while embracing him personally. As many as 200 legislators, lawyers, and former and current public officials have written to the court in his defense. Among the petitioners are former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

They are treating him affectionately, like a family member, a brother or an uncle who may have strayed but still commands love and loyalty.

The system has always served him well.

He earned upward of $1 million in the annual three-month legislative sessions. If he dipped into the expense pool to write campaign checks, it was a deep pool and, some whispered, not by accident.

His success this year was either an extraordinary feat by a lobbyist besmirched or a revelation about the underlying dynamic: Any lobbyist can cobble together a coalition of legislators when the public perceives government interference.

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