Delegate, lobbyist on trial this week

Fulton and Evans accused of fraud in lead-paint scheme

June 05, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron and Greg Garland | Thomas W. Waldron and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

A prominent State House lobbyist and a Baltimore legislator go on trial this week on federal mail-fraud charges, the latest in a series of ethics scandals to lay bare the ugly side of the high-stakes world of Annapolis.

The trial of Gerard E. Evans and Del. Tony E. Fulton, which is scheduled to begin Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, centers on a charge that the two men cut a back-room deal that yielded hundreds of thousands of dollars for the lobbyist and a lucrative real estate commission for the lawmaker.

The trial will draw the full attention of Annapolis insiders and could feature testimony from lobbyists, a handful of legislators and former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

The Evans-Fulton case comes on the heels of two other ethics controversies that jolted the State House in recent years.

In 1998, the Senate expelled Baltimore Democrat Larry Young for using his office for personal gain, and within weeks, Del. Gerald J. Curran, also a Baltimore Democrat, resigned amid allegations that he used his position to build his insurance business.

"It just reinforces the cynicism that's out there about the process," said Donald F. Norris, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a close observer of state politics. "This is just business as usual as far as a substantial portion of the public is concerned."

Evans and Fulton are charged with 11 counts of mail fraud. Each count carries a possible penalty of five years in jail and a fine of $250,000.

Both men have denied any wrongdoing.

The case jurors will hear over three to four weeks revolves around allegations of what is known as a "bell-ringing" scheme, in which Fulton is accused of helping generate lobbying fees by proposing legislation opposed by some of Evans' dozens of clients.

As part of the scheme, Evans and his lobbying partner at the time, John R. Stierhoff, allegedly steered a $10,000 real estate commission to Fulton on their purchase of an Annapolis office building in 1998, according to court documents.

According to the indictment, Fulton talked about introducing a bill that would have made it far easier for victims of lead-paint poisoning to sue any lead-paint manufacturer. Under the "market-share" legislation, a case could proceed whether or not it could be proved that a particular company had produced the paint that poisoned the victim. Rather, plaintiffs in Maryland would have been allowed to sue a paint manufacturer on the basis of that company's share of the market.

Fulton did not introduce the legislation. But prosecutors allege that each time Fulton proposed such a bill, Evans was able to generate new or increased fees from clients that would have been affected by it.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dale P. Kelberman declined to discuss the case last week, but he gave a glimpse of his strategy in a pretrial motions hearing last month.

He said that in 1997, Evans took credit with his paint-manufacturing clients for stopping Fulton from introducing the market-share legislation.

"Hurrah, hurrah, isn't Mr. Evans a wonderful lobbyist?" Kelberman said sarcastically in court.

The crux of the case against Evans may be what Kelberman described as a "concocted" letter Evans is accused of drafting for Fulton to sign and send to Schmoke.

The letter, sent in fall 1998, states Fulton's intention to introduce the lead-paint legislation and seeks the mayor's support for the effort. The indictment charges that Evans not only drafted the letter for Fulton - even though the proposal was inimical to his clients' interest - but also doctored a copy to make it appear that Schmoke's office had forwarded it to him. A lawyer who recently left the U.S. attorney's office said the letter could be key evidence in what appears to be a challenging case for prosecutors.

"I think this is a very difficult case," said Thomas M. DiBiagio, a defense attorney who used to prosecute white-collar crime and public corruption cases. "You have to prove that the underlying proposed legislation was a fiction that was used to induce the lobbying payments. How do you prove that Fulton had no intent to introduce the legislation?"

Prosecutors also have to convince the jury that what the two men did was illegal, DiBiagio said. "In violent crime, everyone knows a crime was committed and the question is who did it. In white-collar crime, there is no dispute who did it. The prosecution has to prove there is a crime."

Through their attorneys, Fulton and Evans have maintained their innocence.

"We're fighting every charge," said Robert C. Bonsib, Evans' attorney. "He is absolutely innocent, and he's looking forward to finally having an impartial fact-finder evaluate the evidence in this case."

Evans, 44, was the top-earning lobbyist in Annapolis in recent years, pulling in more than $600,000 in 1999. He capitalized on his close ties to lawmakers, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, to build a practice known in part for its lavish spending on entertainment.

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