Lawyers and lobbyists voiced surprise yesterday over the sizable legal bill a former client paid on behalf of convicted lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano but said the arrangement did not appear to be an ethical conflict.
Mr. Bereano, who was convicted in November on federal fraud charges, has racked up $668,000 in legal bills on his defense. His former client, GTECH Corp., picked up $455,000 of the cost, he disclosed this week.
hTC "You don't get too many clients willing to pay such large legal fees," said Jose F. Anderson, a professor of constitutional and criminal law at the University of Baltimore. "I'm aware of nothing wrong with a client or anyone wanting to pay legal fees for an individual if they have a desire to do it.
"It's probably not that much different than a rich relative who believes in you."
For GTECH, it was a matter of duty.
Federal authorities began investigating Mr. Bereano in 1992 because of questions raised about a controversial $49 million state lottery contract that GTECH won with Mr. Bereano's help.
"We felt we had an obligation to provide him with some assistance," GTECH spokesman Robert J. Rendine said yesterday.
Although Mr. Bereano was convicted of crimes that had nothing to do with the company or the contract, Mr. Rendine said GTECH does not expect to be reimbursed. The company issued checks directly to the Weinberg and Green law firm on Mr. Bereano's behalf, he said.
Lobbyists and legislators said they could recall no situation like it. But most said they considered it a normal business relationship under the circumstances.
Del. Leon G. Billings, whose questions about the GTECH contract prompted the original investigation, said yesterday that saw nothing inappropriate with the arrangement.
"He was their representative," the Montgomery Democrat said. "If the investigation involves both GTECH and the representative it would not be inappropriate for the client to pay whatever legal fees might be incurred.
"It's just a lot of money."
James J. Doyle, a lobbyist in Annapolis for more than 30 years, agreed.
"The explanation the company gave made some sense -- the original inquiry did involve his activity on their behalf. I wouldn't be surprised to see a client accept some responsibility in that regard," he said.
Mr. Bereano was convicted of defrauding clients to make illegal campaign contributions. He was sentenced to five years of probation and fined $20,000, and has been permitted to continue practicing law while his case is on appeal.
This week, as his defense lawyers asked to withdraw from the case over the remaining $200,000 in unpaid legal bills, Mr. Bereano announced plans to solicit $300,000 for a legal defense fund. Letters will go out next week.
Weinberg and Green claims that Mr. Bereano has resisted making arrangements to pay the balance owed the firm and that he has paid nothing from his own pocket. The lobbyist counters that he has negotiated in good faith.
"I have never not paid a bill in my life," Mr. Bereano said. "I have asked them to work with me, and their response is that they'll work with me but only with a noose around my neck."
He said he refused to secure the legal expenses with the mortgage on his home, as the law firm asked.
After news reports detailed the billing dispute yesterday, three lawyers contacted him to offer free legal representation, he said.
Some speculated yesterday that GTECH's help with his legal bills might slow contributions to Mr. Bereano's legal defense fund.
"I would guess in that letter he's going to have to say something to explain why he needs another $300,000," Mr. Doyle said.
But Mr. Billings said that for a man who was able to marshal several hundred letters on his behalf from some of the state's most powerful and politically prominent figures, it should be no problem.
"I would very much doubt, considering the kind of support he was able to engender for his sentencing, that those same people and others would consider this . . . a reason not to contribute," he said.