Fraud trial in defense phase

Fulton was sincere about lead-paint bill, witnesses say

June 27, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Two state lawmakers testified yesterday that Del. Tony E. Fulton told them in recent years that he wanted to introduce legislation to hold paint companies accountable for lead poisoning of children.

The testimony by Dels. Joanne C. Benson and Michael V. Dobson was intended to rebut suggestions by prosecutors in Fulton's federal mail-fraud trial that he raised the possibility of lead-paint liability legislation in 1997 and 1998 only as part of a scheme to help his co-defendant bilk his lobbying clients.

Fulton and State House lobbyist Gerard E. Evans are charged with conspiring to generate lobbying fees for Evans by misleading paint manufacturers about the likelihood of legislation that would have made it easier to sue the companies.

As part of the alleged scheme, prosecutors say, Evans steered a $10,000 real estate commission to Fulton in 1998 on the purchase of an Annapolis office building.

Benson and Dobson testified as Fulton, a West Baltimore Democrat, launched his defense after two weeks of prosecution testimony in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

Benson, a Prince George's Democrat, said Fulton first brought up with her the idea of legislation targeting the paint companies in 1994 or 1995.

"Delegate Fulton indicated he would put in a bill," Benson said of Fulton's intentions in 1996.

Although Benson testified that she told Fulton she would co-sponsor such legislation, she also told the jury that she disagreed with the key provision of Fulton's proposed liability bill.

The so-called "market-share" legislation would have made it much easier for victims of lead poisoning to sue paint manufacturers, even if they could not prove which company had made the paint that caused the poisoning. Benson said under cross-examination that she did not support that concept.

Delegate Dobson testified that Fulton, beginning in 1998, discussed with him the need to hold paint companies to account. But Dobson, a Northeast Baltimore Democrat, said the talks were general in nature and didn't touch on the market-share concept.

Earlier testimony has shown that Fulton had legislative staffers draft a lead-paint bill for him in 1997, but he decided not to introduce it after meeting with Evans and some of his clients. In the fall of 1998, Fulton wrote Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, asking his support for a paint bill he was preparing for the 1999 legislative session.

Fulton never introduced such legislation. Prosecutors contend that Evans actually drafted the letter to Schmoke as part of the alleged scheme.

Also testifying yesterday was Del. Clarence Davis, another Baltimore Democrat, who said Fulton was part of a discussion in 1986 about making paint companies pay for damages their products had caused.

A fourth legislator, who is considered an expert in the General Assembly on lead-paint issues, testified that Fulton had often shown an interest in such matters, but usually focused on protecting property owners from excessive liability for lead poisoning.

That legislator, Del. James W. Hubbard of Prince George's County, and Davis both said Fulton had not discussed a lead-paint liability bill with them.

Fulton, 48, and Evans, 44, have pleaded not guilty. Their lawyers say prosecutors have distorted the defendants' actions and taken them out of context. Both defendants are expected to testify.

In other testimony yesterday, the General Assembly's top ethics adviser, William G. Somerville, told the jury that Fulton had met the requirements of state law when he filed a sworn statement disclosing his participation in the 1998 real estate deal. Fulton, who is a real estate agent, handled the purchase of the office building for Evans and his partners.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Dale P. Kelberman suggested that the Assembly's ethics committee had performed only a perfunctory examination of Fulton's role in the deal.

Under cross-examination by Kelberman, Somerville acknowledged that the ethics committee called no witnesses, did no independent investigation and relied solely on information provided by Fulton.

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