Lawyer's political role stops at door of court

State GOP chairman defends Democratic delegate in U.S. case

June 09, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

For the past two days, lawyer Richard D. Bennett has figured prominently in a State House corruption case in federal court, defending Del. Tony E. Fulton, a West Baltimore Democrat.

Tomorrow morning, Bennett will take center stage in an entirely different venue, presiding as chairman of the Maryland Republican Party at the GOP's annual convention in Solomons.

The odd sight of the state's top Republican spokesman defending a Democratic delegate on trial with a well-known Democratic lobbyist has rankled some of Bennett's fellow Republicans.

In particular, they contend that Bennett's decision to represent Fulton has pre-empted the GOP from winning political points from the trial, for which jury selection continued yesterday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

"I think that I would have certainly been happier if he had chosen not to have taken such a visible role in this case," said Joyce Lyons Terhes, Bennett's predecessor as head of the state GOP. "It does make it very difficult for the party to attack this kind of behavior in the General Assembly."

A former U.S. attorney, Bennett, 52, said he has no qualms about defending a Democrat.

He points out that the mail fraud charges against Fulton and lobbyist Gerard E. Evans have nothing to do with the administration of Gov. Parris N. Glendening or with state politics in general.

If the case had political overtones, Bennett said, he would have turned it down.

"These allegations against Tony Fulton and Gerry Evans had absolutely nothing to do with the Maryland Democratic Party or the Maryland Republican Party or the Glendening administration," Bennett said. "I looked at it very carefully to make sure."

A native of Baltimore, Bennett worked as a federal prosecutor from 1976 to 1981 and served as U.S. attorney for Maryland from 1991 to 1993 as an appointee of President George Bush. Now, he handles white-collar criminal cases for the firm of Miles & Stockbridge in Baltimore.

Bennett has run twice on the Republican ticket - for state attorney general in 1994 and for lieutenant governor when Ellen R. Sauerbrey ran for governor in 1998.

While Bennett downplays the political aspect of the Fulton case, it promises to give a glimpse of a usually cloaked side of the Democratic-controlled legislature.

The witness list is likely to include a handful of Democratic legislators and former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, also a Democrat.

Fulton, a 14-year veteran of the House of Delegates, and Evans, once the highest-earning lobbyist in Annapolis and a former Democratic Party official, are charged with 11 counts of mail and wire fraud for allegedly scheming to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying fees for Evans.

Fulton twice in recent years discussed introducing legislation to make it easier to sue manufacturers of lead paint, a measure staunchly opposed by some of Evans' clients.

Fulton did not introduce the legislation.

Prosecutors allege that he discussed it only to help Evans collect lobbying fees from paint manufacturers, who paid him to fight the proposal.

The indictment also charges that as part of the alleged scheme, Evans steered a $10,000 real estate commission to Fulton on the purchase of an Annapolis office building for Evans' firm in 1998.

Both Evans and Fulton have denied the charges.

Ethics controversies have for years been a staple of Annapolis life - nearly all of them involving Democrats who hold a more than 2-to-1 advantage in the General Assembly.

Bennett's role in the court proceedings has provoked criticism.

"It's really shocking," said Daniel J. Earnshaw, a Harford County activist who left the Republican Party last year because he saw the state GOP as having abandoned its conservative roots.

"The job of the chairman is to be the cheerleader for the party and go against the other guys, particularly on corruption issues," Earnshaw said. "That's one of the Republicans' best issues in Maryland."

Bennett's defenders point out that he is simply doing his job and note that it was natural for Fulton to hire a former federal prosecutor to handle the case.

"It's very logical that his services would be in demand in this area," said Sen. Martin G. Madden of Howard County, the Republican leader in the state Senate.

Even some fiercely partisan Republicans said it's bad form to use a legislator's criminal indictment for political gain.

"In general, I try to avoid politicizing criminal prosecutions," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan of Howard County, the House Republican whip.

Elected party chairman after his and Sauerbrey's failed 1998 campaign, Bennett has raised substantial sums for the state GOP.

He also pushed through a change in party rules to allow independents to vote in the presidential primary, a move designed to attract independents to the GOP in a heavily Democratic state.

Some conservatives in the party have complained that Bennett is too moderate. Some party regulars, for example, grumbled when he declined to attack Glendening for naming Peter B. Krauser, the head of the Maryland Democratic Party, to a seat on the state Court of Special Appeals.

Many observers concluded that such sniping was a factor in Bennett's decision, announced in February, to resign as party chairman after the November election.

Bennett said he can continue to divorce his politics from his profession: "It wouldn't be any different if I were a physician and there was a Democrat injured on the side of the road and I rendered assistance."

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