Bereano asks U.S. court to void fraud conviction He says scheme had no victims

prosecutors seek stiffer sentence

December 07, 1997|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

RICHMOND, Va. -- With prosecutors still fighting to send him to prison, prominent Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano has again asked a federal appeals court to overturn his 1994 conviction for mail fraud, claiming his scheme victimized no one.

Lawyers for Bereano, once Maryland's most successful and highest-paid lobbyist, told a three-judge panel Friday there was "no contemplated harm" when Bereano defrauded clients into making disguised campaign contributions. Prosecutors say he cheated the clients out of more than $16,000.

"Each of the clients testified they were satisfied with Mr. Bereano" even after learning of the scheme, lawyer M. Albert Figinski told the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. "Each said they would hire Mr. Bereano again. And indeed, some of them have."

The appeal was filed 22 months ago, and Friday was the second time both sides had argued their positions. One of the judges sitting on the panel that heard the case last year, Richard B. Kellam, died before a decision was rendered, forcing the attorneys to begin again.

Bereano's clients -- whom he overbilled so that he could make the campaign contributions -- are the cornerstone of the legal arguments. Prosecutors presented an unusual appeal Friday, arguing that trial Judge William M. Nickerson underestimated the craftiness of the scheme and erred by not sentencing Bereano to prison.

Nickerson said during Bereano's sentencing in U.S. District Court in Baltimore in April 1995 that "the fraud here was not perpetrated for direct monetary gain to the detriment of the clients involved." Rather, he said, clients got what they ultimately wanted, a closer working relationship with legislators.

'Garden-variety mail fraud'

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dale P. Kelberman told the appeals court that the case boils down to "garden-variety mail fraud" and that Nickerson's sentence of five years of probation and a $20,000 fine was inappropriately light.

From May 1990 to June 1991, Bereano instructed family members and employees of his law firm to make campaign contributions. Then he passed the costs of the contributions on to clients, who received phony bills describing the costs as having gone toward entertaining legislators.

"Bereano's scheme was designed to avoid detection, and indeed minimize any outrage by the victims, by spreading around the costs so that each client only paid a small amount to finance his share of the illegal contributions," Kelberman wrote to the court. "It is therefore not surprising that the clients were not as upset as if one of them had been charged the full $16,000 amount."

Kelberman asked the court to vacate Nickerson's sentence and to recommend that instructions be given to impose an 18- to 24-month prison sentence.

Bereano's lawyers argued that the trial was unfair because the judge allowed prosecutors to mention alleged violations of state election law that Bereano was not charged with. Prosecutors said they brought up the alleged violations in court to show Bereano's motive for deceiving clients.

Bereano said after the hearing that he has "all the confidence in the world" in his lawyers and that the clients involved haven't turned against him.

"They all testified on my behalf and in my favor," he said.

Similar case noted

To buttress his point, Bereano, who holds his license to practice law while his appeal is pending, pointed to a case in which a federal appeals court ruled this year that a scheme must intend to injure or harm before it can be construed as criminal fraud.

In the other case, which involved the head of a municipal bond underwriting department in Oklahoma who was suspected of wrongdoing, the court ruled that "greed and criminal liability are not necessarily synonymous." The fraud conviction in that case was overturned because the court found that the accused DTC intended no harm.

In the Bereano case, federal prosecutors pointed to the testimony of the clients, who said that although they bore no ill will toward Bereano, they nevertheless would not have approved of his campaign contributions with their money if they had known about them in advance.

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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