Escaping prison, lobbyist expresses gratitude, pain

April 22, 1995|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Sun Staff Writer

At times yesterday, lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano felt, he said, as if he was attending his own funeral. In a sense, he was.

Federal prosecutors argued throughout the day that he should go to prison. He faced big fines and the loss of his law license.

But after more than six hours of court testimony, eulogies from his friends and legal arguments, the one-time Annapolis powerhouse pulled out almost total victory, preserving at least a little of his professional life and most of his personal freedom. He would serve no time in prison, by no means a certainty when he walked into court just before 9 a.m. yesterday for sentencing on seven counts of mail fraud.

In a day of reversals, he was the client and his corporate bosses were his advocates.

State judges, legislators, lobbyists, former law partners and clients offered praise from the witness stand, attesting to his industry, his loyalty, his honesty and his love of the law.

He knew he needed every good word.

Mr. Bereano said he was offended that anyone would be skeptical about the great outpouring on his behalf.

"Those letters were real," he said of the leniency requests, bundled carefully by his office staff as to category of writer and delivered to reporters among others.

On the stand yesterday, Mr. Bereano's character witnesses painted the picture of an obsessive worker, a man too committed to his clients to ever defraud them.

Dale Kelberman, the assistant U.S. attorney who won a conviction against Mr. Bereano last November, was clearly disappointed in the sentence, but declined to comment.

The judge rejected the idea that Mr. Bereano had defrauded his clients by disguising campaign contributions as legislative expenses.

U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson ruled that Mr. Bereano's crimes had not resulted in damage to the legislative process, though he said he thought the public was "indignant" and "repulsed" by the insights provided during the trial.

Mr. Kelberman, urging a stiffer sentence, said, "Crimes of this sort are difficult to detect. Consequently, when they occur, it is incumbent on the court . . . to maximize the deterrent effect."

At the beginning of the day, Mr. Bereano faced a possible 37 months in prison. His own organizational prowess, the arguments of his legal team, the good words of friends -- and Judge Nickerson's dim view of the case -- brought the number down to zero. He would serve no prison time.

"I'm emotionally drained and exceedingly grateful to the judge for his fairness and compassion," Mr. Bereano said as he walked out of the third-floor courtroom.

He will be required to spend six months in some variety of residential, community confinement with an organization such as Volunteers of America. The precise assignment will be made by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons. And he will be on probation for five years.

An appeal of his November 1994 conviction was filed yesterday. If it is not successful, Mr. Bereano will lose his law license and at least some of the prestige that made him Maryland's man to see for lobbying and help with campaign fund raising.

He had made a lucrative career out of winning major economic battles for tobacco interests, for phone companies, sports fishermen, nursing homes, hospitals and virtually every other interest with business before the General Assembly. After his conviction last year, his income fell from about $700,000 in 1994 to $100,000 this year -- and much of that will be absorbed by legal expenses.

One harrowing day was over, but the nightmare would continue, Mr. Bereano said.

"There's a tremendous economic nightmare. Tremendous losses from lobbying. I can't practice law."

It had not been a funeral, but it had been an ending of sorts: "My life will never be the same," he said.

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