It's about more than milk Lobbyists: Two former law partners are in what amounts to a feud over a bill that would form a panel to set minimum milk prices.

March 12, 1997|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

Legislation to be debated on the floor of the Maryland Senate today is said to be about the price of milk.

But for two men, it's about only one thing -- winning.

Gerard E. Evans and Alan M. Rifkin -- two of Annapolis' top lobbyists and one-time law partners -- are embroiled in what amounts to a blood feud over a bill that would establish a commission to set minimum prices for milk in the state.

"The merits of the issue have nothing to do with this," said one longtime lobbyist from the sidelines.

Rifkin is representing the opposition to the bill, including the grocery retailers. Evans is on the side of the dairy farmers, who support the measure.

The complex legislation promises to spark a heated floor fight, partly because of the lobbyists.

"There are a lot of personalities that have gotten involved, and it has completely diluted the merits of the bill," said Barry F. Scher, vice president of public affairs for Giant Food Inc. and an opponent of the bill.

This is not the first time Evans and Rifkin have squared off -- just last year they were on opposite sides of a punitive damages bill -- but it is clearly the most contentious battle since the two broke up their partnership in 1994.

The two said then that the firm broke up because of potential conflicts of interest among the clients.

By most accounts, the fight now seems rooted in the fact that Rifkin won the lobbying contract for opposing the bill in December over Evans. Evans turned around and sought out the state's dairy farmers, vowing to work for them to push the bill and to accept whatever payment they could afford, however small.

Observers who know both men say their fierce effort is as much about one beating the other as it is about having bragging rights as the biggest and best in the Annapolis lobbying corps.

It is reminiscent of the great lobbying wars of the past, such as the infamous "eye drops bill." In that struggle, lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano fought with then-archrival Ira C. Cooke for more than a dozen years on a bill to allow optometrists to administer eye drops -- legislation that became law only after a veto by the governor and the legislature's vote to override the veto the next year.

Evans, 41, maintains that it's nothing personal, that he's only concerned about the farmers and consumers. "We have spent tens of thousands of dollars in working this issue -- not because Alan's involved, but because it's the right thing to do," Evans said.

He does, however, concede, "To say that we are chums would be an overstatement."

Rifkin, 39, refuses even to talk about his firm's lobbying effort on behalf of a variety of grocery concerns and food dealers.

But just about everyone else in the state capital's lobbying corps is talking about it.

"This is probably the biggest lobbied bill this session, even more than the tax bill," said Laurence Levitan, a former Montgomery County senator who is one of Rifkin's law partners at Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver. "It's strange. It's got a life of its own."

Despite expectations to the contrary, companion milk bills were approved by committees in the Senate on Friday and the House on Monday. The legislation, supported by Gov. Parris N. Glendening, was the result of recommendations of a gubernatorial task force in a bid to stabilize the state's declining dairy industry.

Giant's Scher, who served on both the governor's task force and the retail industry's panel that selected Rifkin, said he was taken aback by Evans' behavior on the bill.

"I think Jerry Evans' ego has gotten in the way," Scher said. "In my 25 years down here, I've never seen any lobbyist not get selected and then immediately go to the other side with expressions of 'Hire me. Hire me.'

"To me, this is tantamount to a lawyer arriving at the scene of an accident, knocking on one driver's window and being turned down and then going to the window of the other driver and offering his services," Scher said.

Evans maintains that he decided to go to the farmers soon after meeting with the retailers in December.

"I went to the interview, but when it became clear exactly what the bill was about, I called Barry [Scher] and declined," he said.

Asked what he believed the bill to be "about," he replied, "This is about greed and money, pure and simple."

Evans said he agreed to work for the dairy farmers for $4,000, a pittance, compared with what the retailers were willing to pay a lobbyist for killing the bill. So far, he said, he has collected nothing from the farmers.

"I've spent that much so far in copying costs," Evans said.

"Overall, the amount of lobbying and the effort that's being put into this piece of legislation is far in excess of what anybody's getting paid," Levitan said.

Edwin R. Fry, a Kent County dairy farmer and a member of the newly formed Maryland Dairy Industry Association, confirmed that Evans has not been paid.

Fry also said he had not noticed any personal animosity toward Rifkin in Evans' lobbying efforts.

"If the motive behind Evans' effort is a grudge, it isn't obvious to me," Fry said. "He's very professional."

Scher said he was shocked by the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee vote Friday and accused Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller of meddling on behalf of his close friend, Evans.

Miller bristled, however, at the suggestion that he twisted arms to get the bill out of committee and vehemently denied it.

"It's just not true," Miller said. "Losers always have to have an excuse."

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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