State's top court disbars Bereano

Annapolis lobbyist sought lesser sanction after fraud conviction

January 14, 2000|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,Sun Staff

Maryland's highest court disbarred Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano yesterday, rejecting his emotional plea to save his law license and a circuit judge's recommendation that he receive a lesser sanction after a federal mail fraud conviction.

In a 26-page opinion, the Court of Appeals brushed aside Bereano's argument that disbarment was too harsh a punishment and found the loss of his law license appropriate.

Bereano, 54, was visibly upset by the decision, but the news did not deter his lobbying efforts yesterday as he made his rounds in Annapolis, including lunch and dinner at the Maryland Inn.

"I'm just going to focus on the session and look at my life after April 10," he said, referring to the end of the 90-day General Assembly session. He noted that the court's action would not affect his ability to continue as a lobbyist.

The decision cannot be appealed, but disbarred lawyers can petition the court to reinstate their licenses. Bereano declined to comment on that possibility.

Bereano, who has practiced law in Maryland for 30 years, learned of the decision about 9:10 a.m., after a clerk from the Court of Appeals called his office.

He was in his car returning from a meeting with a lobbying client. "The first thing I did was to call my legal secretary -- who was typing a letter to a domestic relations client -- to tell her to stop typing," Bereano said.

"Then I called my mother," he said, "and did a lot of crying."

Bereano, who is among the highest-paid lobbyists in Annapolis, was disbarred in Washington in 1998 after losing the final appeal of his 1994 conviction. A federal jury found him guilty of seven counts of mail fraud, concluding that he overbilled lobbying clients so he could make campaign contributions.

The lobbyist had instructed family members and employees to make the contributions, then passed on the costs to clients, prosecutors said.

Bereano served five months in a halfway house and another five months of home detention.

In September, Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Eugene M. Lerner recommended that the high court not disbar Bereano, noting the relatively "minor degree" of harm caused by his crimes and the array of witnesses who vouched for his character -- including a congressman and former governor.

Lerner did not suggest what sanction the Court of Appeals might impose. It can order punishments less severe than disbarment, including suspending a license.

The Court of Appeals heard the case last month, after five of its seven judges excused themselves and were replaced for the case with other judges.

Abraham A. Dash, an ethics professor at the University of Maryland Law School, said the

disbarment should not come as a surprise.

"The Maryland Court of Appeals has had a pretty steady history that when a member of the Maryland bar is convicted of a felony, it's an automatic disbarment," Dash said.

During a hearing before Lerner in the fall, Bereano told the judge that he expected the high court to take his law license but that he was fighting for a brief suspension.

Over two days, Bereano called 39 witnesses -- an extraordinary number for such a proceeding -- including Democratic U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of the 5th District, Maryland District Court Chief Judge Martha F. Rasin and former Gov. Marvin Mandel.

Lerner appeared to be swayed by the effusive testimony in Bereano's behalf. The Court of Appeals apparently was not.

Yesterday, Bereano repeated what had been his defense against the federal charges, which he also hoped would buttress his argument for a lesser sanction by the Court of Appeals.

"The four lobbying clients I was convicted of defrauding very firmly and unequivocally testified that they did not feel or believe

that I had defrauded them, cheated them or taken money from them," he said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat, declined to comment on the disbarment except to say he did not believe it would affect Bereano's lobbying.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat, declined to comment.

Last year, Bereano received more than $305,000 from 35 clients for the six months ending April 30. The figure was a slight decrease from his earnings the year before, according to reports filed with the State Ethics Commission.

During the last session, he was allowed to leave the halfway house to work in his office during the day, but he returned at night and on weekends.

In 1998, he was the fourth-highest-paid lobbyist in Annapolis, but that was a far cry from years past. Bereano at one point had more than 60 clients and was the first lobbyist to break the $1 million mark for compensation during a legislative session.

Bereano said yesterday that his lobbying practice accounts for about 75 percent of his income. He

said he had not talked to his lobbying clients; but he said they were aware of the pending disciplinary action.

He said he was "immediately taking steps" to refer his legal clients to other lawyers.

Bereano's disbarment comes amid another controversy involving a lobbyist. A federal grand jury indicted lobbyist Gerard E. Evans and Democratic Baltimore Del. Tony E. Fulton last month on 11 counts of wire and mail fraud. Prosecutors allege the two men conspired to generate lobbying fees for Evans.

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