Trial shines light on `bell-ringing' concept

July 02, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

The federal mail-fraud trial of state Del. Tony E. Fulton and a prominent lobbyist has brought attention to a little-known State House maneuver that is easier to suspect than prove.

Called "bell-ringing" - after the sound of a cash register - it happens when a legislator introduces a bill, not to pass it, but to help a friendly lobbyist win clients opposed to the bill.

Prosecutors allege that Fulton engaged in bell-ringing - and violated federal mail-fraud statutes in the process - by threatening legislation aimed at paint companies, which in turn hired lobbyist Gerard E. Evans to kill the proposed bill.

No bill was ever introduced, but Evans collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees. He and Fulton deny such a scheme.

While the concept has had a name in Annapolis for many years, legislators and lobbyists say bell-ringing, if it occurs there, is well hidden.

"I have no evidence of it happening at all," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "Maybe I'm in the dark."

Lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano said he has wondered about the motivations for certain bills - particularly some that are reintroduced the year after being soundly defeated.

"I've heard rumors about it, and I've had my suspicions, but I've not seen it specifically," Bereano said.

"I don't think it's widespread, but I think it's happened before, absolutely," said another lobbyist, who didn't want to be identified. "It's just my gut that says that to me."

In the wake of the charges against Fulton and Evans, a task force studying lobbying laws is considering legislation to specifically outlaw bell-ringing - though such schemes might already violate state or federal law.

Fulton, a Baltimore Democrat with 14 years in the General Assembly, has a different explanation for what he was trying to accomplish, saying he was essentially attempting bell-ringing on behalf of his constituents.

He agrees with the prosecution assertion that he never intended to push the legislation making it easier to sue paint companies for injuries related to lead-paint exposure. But he said he used the prospect of such a bill as a hammer to try to force the companies to give to projects in his district, which he called a "noble" goal.

Fulton said the practice is common in Annapolis.

"We use that as a negotiation tool," Fulton testified. "Very seldom do we have the occasion to get corporate America to the table to negotiate for our constituents."

But several lawmakers and lobbyists said the practice outlined by Fulton was unusual, and legislative leaders said it was an inappropriate use of power.

"It's very rare and it's frowned upon," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "It's certainly not unheard of, but it's definitely not Good Government 101."

Taylor said it would be "totally inappropriate" for a legislator to use the threat of legislation to win charitable contributions back home, no matter how worthwhile the charity.

"You're threatening statutory law, not for the purpose of good public policy, but for the purpose of having private investments made to a community," Taylor said.

In recent years, it has grown more common for companies with issues in the General Assembly to give money to charitable causes championed by legislators.

This year, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. agreed to spend $1.5 million over three years to help buy furnaces for 600 poor families. When the gift was announced, the company shared the credit with two senators - Clarence M. Mitchell IV of Baltimore and Thomas L. Bromwell of Baltimore County.

Last week, testimony in the mail-fraud case showed that Evans, once the highest-earning lobbyist in Annapolis, urged paint and asbestos companies he represented to set aside thousands of dollars for community projects supported by legislators.

In 1997, a coalition of asbestos companies took his advice and budgeted $50,000 for charitable and civic organizations supported by legislators, according to testimony.

Paint company representatives testified they refused to make such contributions, saying that if they helped Fulton, they would be besieged by similar requests from other legislators in Maryland and around the country.

Other witnesses in the case readily acknowledged that some bills proposed in Annapolis aren't intended to pass, but are designed to send a message - either to companies that are not behaving appropriately or to unresponsive state bureaucrats.

Del. Clarence Davis, for example, put in a bill to tax premium channels on cable television three years ago. But Davis, a Baltimore Democrat, told the jury he didn't really want to pass such a bill. Rather, he wanted a meeting with the cable television companies to discuss their performance, which he quickly got once the bill went in.

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