Even for scandal-weary Annapolis, the current situation is a little weird.
Gerard E. Evans, the highest paid State House lobbyist, is under federal mail fraud indictment. He's accused of trying to cheat his clients but continues to work the halls of Annapolis.
His friend and lobbying partner, John R. Stierhoff, has received prosecutorial immunity and may testify against him. But the two continue to work as partners in their Annapolis law firm -- sharing space in the same $600,000 brick building that's said to have played a role in the fraud scheme allegations.
Until the criminal matter is resolved in a courtroom in Baltimore, call it a marriage of convenience.
"It's like a couple that's getting divorced but have to live together in the same house," surmised one lobbyist who asked not to be named. "They have separate bedrooms, and they may cross paths in the bathroom once in a while."
The partners seem to have had little choice. The indictments of Evans and state Del. Tony E. Fulton of Baltimore, who is alleged to be a co-conspirator, came in mid-December, only four weeks before the beginning of the annual 90-day General Assembly session.
Evans and Stierhoff opted to stick out the 90 days together, perhaps concerned that a split on the eve of the legislative session would drive away clients.
Associates describe the relationship between the two men as professional but sometimes awkward.
They decline to discuss it in detail.
"People talk," Evans said, when told others around the State House were wondering about their relationship. "I'm not going to talk about it in any way, shape or form."
Stierhoff said, "We're working every day to vigorously and ethically represent our clients."
The indictments against Evans and Fulton allege that they conspired to generate fees from several of Evans' lobbying clients -- companies that manufactured either lead paint or asbestos. The indictment charges that Fulton twice threatened to introduce legislation the companies would oppose so Evans could collect money from them to fight it.
In a related allegation, prosecutors also contend that Evans and Stierhoff steered a $10,125 real estate commission to Fulton, a real estate agent, when they purchased their historic office building in 1998.
Stierhoff was a target of the investigation, but he accepted a grant of immunity and testified before the federal grand jury.
Now speculation has swirled around the State House about just what he will say during the trial, a subject that Stierhoff declined to discuss. He has told others, though, that his testimony will be far from crucial to the prosecutors' case against his partner.
Despite the negative publicity, the two lobbyists have retained most of their clients from last year, including such blue-chippers as Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.
They have lost more than 20 clients, a group that brought the firm more than $400,000 last year. Most of the defections, however, appear unrelated to the federal case. The Washington Redskins -- a longtime client that sent Evans $100,000 last year -- have a new owner and have not hired Annapolis lobbyists.
Charles Rhodes, the president of a state law enforcement officers union, said his organization gave only passing thought to finding a new lobbying team.
"There was some brief discussion," Rhodes said. "But we're fortunate to live in a country where you're innocent until proven guilty."
Evans and Stierhoff, who rarely worked as a team before the indictments, seem to have become more independent this year. They were registered to represent BGE last session, but Stierhoff alone is registered now.
Stierhoff was at the center of things Tuesday night as the law enforcement union held a reception that drew dozens of lawmakers and Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
The night before, Evans was the host for two General Assembly committees at a waterfront hotel reception held by client Beretta USA, a gun manufacturer.
Among the guests were House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Evans' political patron, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who said he does not sense any awkwardness surrounding Evans, Stierhoff and Fulton as they go about their business.
"Each person has got to decide on their own who they're comfortable with or not comfortable with," Miller said. "Gerry Evans and his wife have been friends of mine for almost 20 years."
In a state capital that has withstood one scandal after another, it's all but impossible to find someone who professes concern about having people under fraud indictments helping shape state law.
"There's always some cloud over some member of the Assembly ever since I've been here," said Sen. Larry E. Haines, a Carroll County Republican. "We have a lot of former leaders in this state who have spent time in prison."
Keeping a low profile
Fulton is maintaining a low profile as he pursues his legislative
duties. He agreed to a directive from Taylor that he abstain on issues in which Evans' clients have an interest to avoid the appearance of a conflict.
Yesterday, Fulton gave his first public testimony of the session, trying to sell the House Judiciary Committee on two bills that dealt with, coincidentally, people who are wrongfully convicted of crimes.
"We have the responsibility to protect those who are innocent or wrongfully convicted," Fulton told the committee. "We should all be sensitive to that."
The committee did not mention his legal troubles, although the delegate seemed to allude to them when members began questioning him intently about his bills.
"You're the lawyers," he said with a laugh. "You make me nervous."
Fulton declined to discuss his situation after the hearing.
"I'm very focused," Fulton said. "I'm happy."
Sun staff writers Greg Garland and William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.