Helping a Friend

June 20, 1995

Convicted lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano has spent much of his adult life amassing a portfolio of friends who might help him some day. Last week, he cashed in on one of those investments in a big way: He avoided losing his law license, thanks in part to an old friend on the Court of Appeals.

Judge John C. Eldridge admitted he is a Bereano friend of long standing. The two have attended Oriole games together. The judge has been a guest at Bereano parties. The lobbyist was active in the House of Delegates campaign of Judge Eldridge's son in Anne Arundel County last year. The judge owes his prestigious seat on the court to Mr. Bereano's lobbying partner, former Gov. Marvin Mandel, whose political appointment of his top legal aide in 1974 shocked the legal establishment.

Now Mr. Bereano has reason to send Judge Eldridge a "thank you" note. A majority of the Court of Appeals, with Judge Eldridge participating, took the unusual step last week of refusing to suspend Mr. Bereano's law license while he appeals his federal conviction for fraudulently billing his clients more than $16,000 so he could make illegal campaign contributions.

Mr. Bereano has been barred from practicing law in the District of Columbia and in the federal courts. But not in Maryland. Making a mockery of state election laws apparently isn't considered something that harms the public, according to this state's high court. Not if it is done by an influential lobbyist who knows how to pull strings.

After Mr. Bereano was convicted, he asked three judges on the Court of Appeals to write letters to the federal judge on his behalf, including Mr. Eldridge. All refused to do so, feeling it improper. And when the Bereano license-suspension case came before the Court of Appeals, two of those three judges recused BTC themselves again, as was proper. Judge Eldridge did not.

The Maryland Code of Judicial Conduct says a judge should not participate in a proceeding if his impartiality might reasonably be questioned. It's not even a close call in Mr. Eldridge's case. He never should have set foot near the Bereano matter. By doing so he cast dishonor on the Court of Appeals at a time when the Maryland judiciary is under public attack. Circuit court judges in recent years have condoned rape and even murder of women by abusive men. Now the highest court gives the impression of being willing to ignore a clear violation of the law by a member of the bar if he happens to be a friend.

When Mr. Bereano's appeals in federal court are exhausted, the state Court of Appeals may get another chance to render judgment on his ability to practice law. Judge Eldridge should not participate. Mr. Bereano prides himself in his ability to manipulate the legislative process for his clients. He should not be permitted to do the same thing with the state appeals court.

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