Slightly chastened, back at work

Lobbyist: Former high-flier Bruce C. Bereano rebuilds his clientele while living in a federal prison halfway house.

February 16, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

He'll be sleeping for the next five months in a bordello recycled by the Federal Bureau of Prisons into a halfway house, but he can still be found over coffee every morning at the Maryland Inn's Treaty of Paris Restaurant.

Taking his place among the fallen mighty of Maryland politics, lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano lives at the Volunteers of America facility in the 4600 block of E. Monument St. in Baltimore with about 80 other felons.

Released yesterday after 10 days of introduction to his new life, he dined at the inn with Del. Peter A. Hammen, a Baltimore Democrat.

Former Gov. Marvin Mandel dropped by to welcome the lobbyist back.

Sentenced on a 1994 mail-fraud conviction arising from his work as a lobbyist, the 54-year-old Bereano leaves his room at sunup on closely monitored passes with a 6 p.m. curfew. Yesterday was his first day out after more than a week of "lockdown" intended to impress upon him that he's a federal prisoner.

Under his sentence, he is expected to continue working -- in this case lobbying before the Maryland General Assembly, not the usual sort of job available to felons in similar circumstances.

But Bereano, irrepressible as ever, has enjoyed unusually exclusive circumstances for much of his 28-yearcareer in Annapolis. Even his incarceration has had its trappings: He was driven to the VOA on Feb. 5 by his old friend Larry Tolliver, former Maryland State Police superintendent.

Tolliver, recently purged as Anne Arundel County police chief in a political changing of the guard, is free to chauffeur him.

Yet Bereano, whose chutzpah and charm have been his chief tools, has been otherwise anxious to demonstrate best behavior.

Emblematic of the General Assembly's protective culture, he now walks the corridors as a wounded and somewhat sympathetic figure. If anyone begrudges him the continuation of his career, few say it for the record.

Many of his old clients still retain him, as evidenced by the $398,000 he earned in lobbying fees last year.

That figure was down from the more than $1 million he reported some years in the 1980s, but up sharply from a recent low of $114,000 in 1996, two years after his conviction.

"He's the archetype of a lobbyist," says Del. John Adams Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat and majority leader. "There's a Bruce Bereano in every state capital. It's neither good nor bad. It's reality. Lobbyists are part of the process. Just as reporters are."

First to make a million

Well-organized and hyperactive, Bereano became the first Maryland lobbyist to take in $1 million in a 90-day legislative session, reinventing the role of lobbyist. Beyond the traditional advocacy of his predecessors, Bereano offered full-service representation, even handling legal matters for legislators in trouble.

His fate in the criminal justice system is seen by some as a logical consequence of his determination to politicize lobbying: He made campaign fund raising an integral part of his appeal for friends -- and votes -- in the Assembly.

He got in trouble, federal authorities said, by attempting to stretch his financial influence, converting expense money into campaign contributions.

At one point, he controlled 10 political action committees including one called BEREANOPAC, an initiative that attracted investigative attention.

In his prime, he won spectacular lobbying victories -- even obtained a presidential pardon for his friend and one-time employer, Mandel. On behalf of a computer maker, he unseated a competitor whose grip on the state lottery business seemed unshakable. He blames his opponent in that lobbying war for triggering his downfall by requesting an investigation.

Not quite remorseful

Bereano's rise and fall over 20 years have been dramatic and exhilarating. His sometimes boisterous dance along the line separating the legal from the indictable cost him marque clients, millions of dollars and, quite possibly, his cherished law license. A disbarment inquiry began recently.

Bereano is not quite remorseful, arguing still that he was convicted of being a lobbyist -- that no one was victimized by his alleged offense. His spirits are high and his nerve intact, at least on the surface.

On the morning of Feb. 5, the day he reported for his weeklong halfway house orientation, Bereano spoke to a class of law students from his alma mater, Georgetown University -- a session arranged by Hurson.

After his five months of incarceration, he told them, he would have to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet for another five months.

"I don't usually wear bracelets," he said.

At the VOA facility last week, he did everything he could to adjust to incarceration -- and mind his lobbying store. From a pay phone outside his barracks-like room, he lined up a potential new client or two, including an association of massage parlors.

"I'm racking up many hours, billable and nonbillable," he says.

But he took care to acknowledge the punitive nature of his new surroundings.

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