Lessons learned from Bereano

July 14, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith

A joke and a smile marked his departure -- in a fine suit and fancy car -- from his tour with the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano recently completed the live-in phase of a 10-month sentence for mail fraud. He must now endure five months of home detention, wearing an electronic ankle bracelet.

At least he can sleep in his comfortable Annapolis house, not in the demoralizing Volunteers of America halfway house in East Baltimore.

But his spirited step toward freedom cannot conceal or reduce the price he has paid for giving more than he should have to the pursuit of his profession. He was overly devoted to his image as a lobbyist who would do almost anything for a client or a legislator.

He now faces the near certainty that his law license will be revoked, a sanction imposed on lawyers with felony convictions. He can continue to work as a lobbyist, but he has a thriving law practice and considerable pride in his role as a member of the bar.

"I've stopped crying about it," he told a friend, but clearly his grieving continues.

Few outside the mesmerizing bubble of Annapolis will have much sympathy for him. Before his fall, he had become a symbol of excess there -- and for that reason, perhaps, a target of law enforcement officials.

His strident attacks on those who tried to make it harder for young people to buy cigarettes left him the image of a hard-eyed hit man for Big Tobacco. He welcomed that perception, built on it, profited from it.

Inside the bubble, his perpetual motion approach to clients was standard-setting. Those who followed him into the lucrative lobbying trade are equally single-minded, equally clever, equally flamboyant.

Bereano was convicted essentially of failing to say no when a candidate or two asked him for help with fund raising after his own contribution maximum had been reached.

To meet that demand, he arranged for contributions through "nominees" -- pass-through contributors who were later reimbursed by Bereano, using client expense funds.

At trial, his corporate employers said they did not feel defrauded. The judge seemed sympathetic to the view that Bereano was being tried for practicing his trade, for being a lobbyist. The precise sum of money involved in his offenses was on the order of $600, though the government said more than money was at stake -- the faith of the voters in a fair and unbought system.

Bereano was called to account for a legislative culture in which money was too important. The government found this corrosive and sought to stop it by nailing one of its most prominent practitioners.

The tragedy is that Bereano's real stock in trade has been hard work, an understanding of human nature and knowledge of the process. Several hundred of his colleagues testified for him or wrote letters on his behalf during the trial -- all of which was a reflection of their genuine regard for him and of the disconnect between Annapolis and the world beyond Route 50.

Those who wish to preserve a personal freedom or a cherished law license would do well to remember that the law will be interpreted outside the Annapolis whirl.

C. Fraser Smith is a Sun editorial writer.

Pub Date: 7/14/99

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