Bereano to work despite sentence

Many clients stick with legislative star put on work release

January 07, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Even before the 1999 General Assembly begins Wednesday, Bruce C. Bereano can claim victory in one of the toughest lobbying cases of his colorful career: persuading 30 or so clients to stick with him while he serves a 10-month court sentence for mail fraud.

The first Maryland lobbyist to earn more than $1 million in a legislative session, Bereano will apparently become the first in Maryland to represent major corporate clients while in a work-release program for convicted criminals.

"Several of them said they want me or nobody," Bereano said. "They're long-standing clients who know me as a human being."

A federal jury convicted Bereano in 1994 of seven counts of mail fraud, finding that he overbilled clients so he could make campaign contributions with money they paid him for expenses. When Bereano was sentenced last month, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dale P. Kelberman described his crime as "not one of passion or poverty, but one of greed and opportunity."

Several of Bereano's employers contacted yesterday said they gave almost no consideration to firing him.

"He's been with us in good times and we're sticking with him in bad times," said Gregg A. TenEyck, spokesman for

Safeway Inc. of Lanham. "It's my feeling that he can be more effective than most, even with the situation he's in this year."

A former representative of Common Cause, the citizens lobby, said Bereano's determination to continue practicing while he is serving a sentence on work release taints the image of lobbyists.

"It's unfortunate," said Deborah Povich, former executive director of Common Cause/Maryland. "The process of having lobbyists is vital. This does nothing to improve the reputation of the lobbying industry."

Others found Bereano's situation, while remarkable, illustrative of the underlying laws of Annapolis: Effective representation remains in demand even in circumstances that might seem disabling to those outside the legislative world.

"Whatever his foibles, he's enormously good at the job," said Del. Leon G. Billings, the Montgomery County legislator whose letter six years ago to federal prosecutors helped trigger an investigation of how one of Bereano's clients, GTECH Corp., got a lucrative Maryland lottery contract.

"The only issue is how members of the institution will react to his situation. If they're prepared to forgive and forget, then he can ply his trade and do as well or better than his colleagues," Billings said.

`Between him and clients'

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. was similarly resigned: "As I understand it, he is operating completely within the boundaries that the court has set for him. As long as he works within the guidelines of our institution, then I think it boils down to an issue between him and his clients."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's press secretary, Ray Feldmann, said the governor would have no comment.

Bereano's energy and knowledge of lawmaking, accumulated over more than 20 years of lobbying in Annapolis, have earned him great loyalty among his clients, several of whom testified for him at trial and have stayed with him through his indictment, conviction and years of appeals.

"He's representing us for a minimal fee," said Jim Hickey of the Northern Chesapeake Docking Pilots Association. "I don't think, dollar for dollar, we could have had the same level of representation if Bruce wasn't available to us. We're on the lower part of the food chain."

Bereano's five-month sentence at the halfway house is to begin Feb. 5. He said he has visited the facility, the Volunteers of America in East Baltimore. As are all the residents, he will be free to leave for work at 6 a.m. but must return by 8 p.m. every business day. He'll spend weekends at the halfway house.

`Humble, low-key fashion'

The last five months of his sentence will be served at home, where he will be required to wear an electronic anklet to pinpoint his whereabouts.

"I will conduct myself in a humble, low-key fashion," Bereano said of his new circumstances. "I'll relax more. I'll rest more. Think and contemplate. I won't be running from bull roast to bull roast, fund-raiser to fund-raiser."

For now, Bereano will be free to practice law as well. As a convicted felon, he may face disbarment in Maryland -- an action already taken against him in the District of Columbia. A disbarment action was begun against him in Maryland, but rejected by the state Court of Appeals. Should another one begin, it could take years to complete.

While insisting he did not defraud anyone, Bereano acknowledged that his style as a featured player in Annapolis politics virtually invited the scrutiny of law enforcement officials.

At one point, he formed his own political action committee to enhance his ability to help legislators -- who might then be in a position to help him and his clients.

Bereano, whose earnings fell precipitously after his indictment, has begun to revive his career. From over $700,000 in 1994, his earnings as reported to the state fell to $114,000 in 1996 but were back up to $397,000 last year.

Legal bills, he said, are approaching a half-million dollars -- a figure that will go higher as his appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court continues. He said he remains confident that he will dig himself out.

"I'm anxious to get it over with," he said. "It's holding me back in so many facets of my life."

Pub Date: 1/07/99

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