Firms allege push for gifts

Paint companies say Fulton, Evans sought backing of projects

Alternative to legislation

June 16, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron and Greg Garland | Thomas W. Waldron and Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

State Del. Tony E. Fulton and lobbyist Gerard E. Evans tried to pressure several paint companies to spend money on projects in Fulton's community, a lawyer for the companies testified yesterday in the two men's federal mail fraud trial.

Fulton told company officials that such contributions could be an alternative to legislation he was preparing to introduce, a measure that would have exposed lead paint manufacturers to potentially devastating lawsuits, lawyer Susan L. Pace testified.

A few days after Fulton pleased the companies by deciding not to introduce the bill, Evans urged them to spend money in Fulton's district, "to make [Fulton] look like a hero," said Pace, a Minnesota lawyer for three paint companies that hired Evans in 1997.

Harry Lehman, a lawyer for Sherwin-Williams, testified earlier that Evans pointedly suggested that other firms were paying $50,000 each for community projects in their attempts to influence legislative issues.

None of the paint companies complied with the requests for contributions, the witnesses said.

The testimony does not appear to directly address the charges against Evans and Fulton, who are accused of scheming to generate lobbying fees for Evans.

But the witnesses' accounts offered an unusual glimpse of how a legislator can try to use his position to gain something of political benefit from special interests who appear in Annapolis.

The practice grew so common in recent years that the General Assembly in 1999 banned lawmakers from asking lobbyists to give to charities.

Legislators, though, are allowed to seek contributions for charities directly from corporations.

Seeking `attention'

Fulton's lawyer told the jury this week that the West Baltimore delegate, in his discussions of lead paint legislation, was trying to get the "attention" of the companies.

"He was trying to pressure the paint companies to be more responsive to his community," Bennett said. "His motive was to get the attention of paint companies, not to enrich himself."

Pace, who was a lawyer for Glidden, SCM and Millennium Inorganic Chemicals, said her clients refused the requests for money for fear that other lawmakers would pressure the companies to fund similar projects.

`Slippery slope'

"We were very uncomfortable getting anywhere near that kind of program," Pace said. "It begins a slippery slope."

The head of a government watchdog group said later that the testimony illuminated transactions between legislators and special interests with issues pending in the Assembly that are usually hidden.

"This is the classic `iron triangle,'" said Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, referring to the relationship between lawmakers, lobbyists and those seeking to influence legislation.

"The lobbyist gets the money, the legislator gets the constituent benefits and the [lobbyists'] clients supposedly get the kind of protection they think they need," she said.

Fulton, 48, and Evans, 44, each face 11 counts of mail and wire fraud.

Both have said they are innocent.

Prosecutors allege that the two men plotted to generate lobbying fees for Evans by persuading some of his clients that Fulton planned to introduce legislation they opposed.

As part of the alleged scheme, Evans is accused of steering a $10,000 real estate commission to Fulton on the 1998 purchase of a $600,000 Annapolis office building for Evans' law firm.

1989 commission

Although it is not mentioned in the charges against the two men, Evans helped Fulton collect a commission in 1989 from Evans' employer at the time, the state medical society.

Fulton never introduced the lead paint legislation - a "market share" bill that would have made it significantly easier for victims of lead paint poisoning to sue manufacturers for damages.

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