Bereano leaves halfway house

Lobbyist spent nights in confinement, days with clients, legislators

`It was surreal'

July 03, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano ended his five-month stint in a federal halfway house in East Baltimore yesterday, upbeat about his personal growth during confinement and looking forward to a full return from his legal purgatory.

Standing in the parking lot of the Volunteers of America halfway house -- a former low-rate motel on East Monument Street -- Bereano waved goodbye to a half-dozen detainees who were watching him load his champagne-colored Mercedes-Benz with clothes, lamps and a television.

"God bless America, and God bless the VOA!" shouted Bereano, his arms raised high, his navy suit impeccable. Pointing to one resident, Bereano shouted, "Tony, you're in charge."

Bereano is not quite free. The longtime State House lobbyist must serve five months in home detention, meaning he can leave his waterfront house near Annapolis only to work, run errands and attend religious services. And he will have to wear an electronic ankle bracelet so that federal officials can keep track of him.

But his release ends what Bereano acknowledges was a strange five months. He spent nights and weekends in confinement for a corruption felony, but spent days lobbying legislators in Annapolis or representing legal clients.

"I would leave the VOA and go meet with high-level government officials," Bereano said. "I'm a convicted felon, I've got a record, then I'm sitting down with a state's attorney asking him not to send a client to jail.

"It was surreal."

A federal jury convicted Bereano in 1994 of seven counts of mail fraud, finding that he overbilled lobbying clients so that he could make campaign contributions. The lobbyist had instructed family members and employees of his law firm to make the contributions, then passed the costs on to clients, prosecutors said.

The clients received phony bills from Bereano that described the costs as having gone toward entertaining legislators. None of his clients complained about the scheme at trial, but prosecutors cast Bereano's actions as an offense against the political system.

Bereano was fined $30,000 and sentenced to 10 months of confinement, first in the halfway house, then at home.

Despite being locked up at night, Bereano managed to earn a handsome living during the General Assembly session this year. For the six months that ended April 30, Bereano received more than $305,000 from 35 clients, according to reports he filed with the State Ethics Commission.

That was significantly less than what he took in before his conviction but still placed him among the best-paid lobbyists in Annapolis.

Under orders from federal authorities to stay out of the State House and General Assembly office buildings, Bereano worked by phone and met with legislators over meals. A number of current and former lawmakers came to the halfway house to visit, he said.

At the VOA facility, some of the inmates befriended Bereano, asking him for legal advice or to notarize papers.

Twice, he said, he taught other inmates how to tie a necktie. And three times, he helped solve a major problem for the detainees -- broken pay phones -- by placing a call to Sean M. Looney, a State House lobbyist for Bell Atlantic.

There were unexpected bright spots, he said, such as the weekly Sunday night visits with his son, Bryon, 26, who recently graduated from law school.

"I've had an enormous amount of gratification over the last five months helping people," Bereano said. "The past five months have really taught me how to deal with unexpected roadblocks and to be entrepreneurial to meet those challenges."

Besides serving his home detention, Bereano must also prepare for what will likely be an up- hill battle to hang on to his license to practice law in Maryland. The District of Columbia has disbarred him because of the mail fraud conviction.

Pub Date: 7/03/99

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