Zero tolerance

May 29, 2002

HAVING RECENTLY departed the slam, convicted felon and lobbyist Gerard E. Evans now heads back to his old Annapolis haunts. A new law would have prevented his return -- but it was passed after his conviction and doesn't apply to him. What a pity.

If past patterns persist, many members of the General Assembly will welcome him like a long-lost friend. That need not be the case, but the ways of Annapolis seem to encourage it.

That's what U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz had in mind when he sentenced Mr. Evans for fraud two years ago.

"He took advantage of a culture of corruption," the judge said. That culture had been tolerated by legislators and by the citizens of Maryland, he said -- and used by lobbyists who thrive in a system that rewards personal relationships as much as arguments on the merits of legislation.

Thus, Mr. Evans expects to resume his career. His knowledge of the process, his friends and his personal charm helped him earn $1 million or more a year. But the culture snared him, too. Lobbyists compete to be top dogs, not just for the bragging rights but to attract more clients and to make more money.

Now he returns, hoping he can work his way back toward the sums he amassed before his conviction. Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist with whom Mr. Evans jousted for years, prospers now in Annapolis just a few years after his conviction for mail fraud.

In the wake of Evans and Bereano, the Assembly gave itself the power to expel lobbyists convicted in the future.

Other reforms passed in recent years leave a narrower window of opportunity for lobbyists to help legislators raise campaign funds, a blatant conflict of interest in years past. Mr. Evans infuriated some legislators when, after his conviction, he said that money had a corrosive effect in Annapolis. The reform garment didn't fit him, but of course he was right.

The new rules also prohibit "bell-ringing," a practice in which a legislator introduces a bill not to have it passed but to help lobbyists win clients. Prosecutors said Mr. Evans and Del. Tony E. Fulton of Baltimore had engaged in such a scheme. Mr. Fulton was cleared, but Mr. Evans was convicted.

The Assembly should adopt a policy of zero tolerance for abuses of the public trust. Legislators are responsible for more than the laws. They're responsible for the culture in which the laws are made.

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