Jurors discuss split decision in mail fraud case

6 decided dealing between Evans, Fulton was politics

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

After more than three days of deliberation in the trial that convicted lobbyist Gerard E. Evans of fraud last week, half the federal jury concluded that Del. Tony E. Fulton's dealings with Evans were an unsavory, but not illegal, form of political hardball, according to jurors and the prosecutor in the case.

While prosecutors charged that Fulton helped Evans win paint-company clients by making empty threats to push legislation aimed at their industry, the delegate maintained his "noble" goal was to compel the firms to give money to community projects he supported.

Unable to agree on Fulton's intentions, the jury of seven women and five men deadlocked Friday on six of the 11 mail fraud counts against Fulton, and acquitted him on five. Jurors said the panel was evenly divided on the lawmaker's guilt.

With much stronger evidence against Evans, the jury early on concluded that he was guilty, one juror said, ultimately voting to convict him on nine of 11 counts.

"It was difficult to parse through the culture of Annapolis and the accepted relationships between lobbyists and legislators and what went on here," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Dale P. Kelberman, who discussed the case with jurors at length after the trial. "Delegate Fulton's motivation of trying to bring the paint companies in with the threat of legislation was something they may have accepted -- unfortunately."

One juror who voted to convict the West Baltimore Democrat said others were more open to Fulton's explanation.

"Some people weren't comfortable with his actions, but decided they weren't illegal," said a juror who voted to convict Fulton on the six unresolved counts.

Prosecutors will review the case and the comments of jurors in deciding whether to retry Fulton, 48, on corruption charges.

Kelberman said he had no second thoughts about how the evidence was presented.

"Obviously the jury understood it," Kelberman said. "They just had some differences of opinion about the inferences that could be drawn" about Fulton's role.

Several jurors declined to comment on the case yesterday.

The key question for the jury was whether the interplay between Evans and Fulton over the issue of lead-paint liability legislation was business-as-usual in the state capital or something that breached a legal line.

Fulton testified that it was commonplace for legislators to use the threat of legislation to force corporations to spend money in their districts -- an assertion other legislators have disputed outside the courtroom.

"The whole relationship between lobbyists and legislators, it just doesn't sound ethical a lot of times," said the juror who was convinced of Fulton's guilt. "That makes it difficult when you look at a case like this."

While prosecutors consider their next move, the legislature is likely to be confronted with several issues growing out of the high-profile case against Fulton and Evans, 44, once the top-earning lobbyist in the State House and a friend of many key lawmakers.

Ethics scandals have become almost an annual ritual in Annapolis in recent years. In 1994, Bruce C. Bereano, the top-earning State House lobbyist at the time, was convicted on federal mail-fraud charges. Two years ago, the Assembly was rocked by the expulsion of Larry Young from the Senate and the resignation from the House of Delegates of Gerald J. Curran, both amid ethics controversies.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said yesterday that the legislature has strong ethics laws in place. But he repeated his view that the laws should be strengthened by establishing a licensing system for State House lobbyists, complete with a code of ethics to be enforced by an oversight panel.

The issue of licensing is being considered by a task force that has been meeting since last year to study state laws governing lobbyists. The panel is expected to recommend legislation during the 2001 General Assembly session.

Among other issues the panel is examining is an explicit prohibition of so-called "bell-ringing" -- a scheme in which a lawmaker proposes legislation not to pass it but to help a friendly lobbyist retain clients opposed to the bill.

The jury found that Evans engaged in a variation of bell-ringing by exaggerating the threat of liability legislation to scare paint companies he represented, forcing them to rehire him to battle the expected bill.

In the period covered by the case, 1997 to 1999, Evans repeatedly warned the companies that such a bill was imminent, but none was introduced. Even so, Evans collected tens of thousands of dollars in fees from the paint companies.

Each of the nine counts carries a punishment of up to five years in jail and a fine of up to $250,000. Evans is to be sentenced Sept. 14.

State officials may also have to examine Evans' comments from the witness stand that he did not register as a lobbyist for several asbestos companies he represented, even though they paid him more than $100,000.

Evans testified that he did register on behalf of one firm concerned about legislation aimed at asbestos manufacturers -- Westinghouse -- and lobbied publicly on its behalf.

He said his agreement with the other asbestos companies was to keep them informed of legislation but to keep secret the fact that he represented them.

Under state ethics laws, lobbyists who simply "monitor" Annapolis proceedings for a firm, without doing any active lobbying, do not have to register as lobbyists. But the amount of the fees the companies paid Evans to "monitor" raises questions about whether he should have registered his representation.

"This is what I would characterize as `soft' lobbying -- attempting to fly below the radar," said Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a group that advocates stricter enforcement of ethics laws.

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