Maryland's highest court ruled yesterday that Gerard E. Evans can continue his lucrative lobbying practice despite a 2000 fraud conviction that prompted a federal judge to denounce a "culture of corruption" in Annapolis.
The guilty verdict played a pivotal role in prompting the General Assembly to pass legislation in 2001 to rein in lobbyists.
By a 5-2 vote, the Court of Appeals ruled that the State Ethics Commission exceeded its authority when it revoked Evans' registration as a lobbyist under that law.
The court ruled that if the General Assembly wanted the law allowing the commission to impose sanctions on lawbreaking lobbyists to apply retroactively, it had to do so explicitly.
It said it found nothing in the law or legislative history showing it intended to do so.
"The fact that the legislature was, indeed, aware of Evans' conduct makes the omission particularly telling," Judge Alan M. Wilner wrote in the majority opinion.
"Failure to expressly exclude Evans does not translate to an affirmative intent to include him."
The decision continues the career of one of Annapolis' most colorful characters - a garrulous and jovial wheeler-dealer whose charm and connections to powerful lawmakers propelled his earnings to about $1 million a year in the late 1990s.
Evans said he was relieved the "cloud" over his business had been removed.
"I picked up a new client today as a result of having it lifted," he said.
The lobbyist said the decision shows that "even the ethics commission is not above the law" and that he is owed an apology.
"It was a vicious, mean-spirited persecution on the part of the ethics commission," he said.
Evans' career nose-dived after his June 2000 conviction for wire fraud in a case where he was found to have persuaded a lawmaker to threaten the introduction of legislation harmful to the interests of some of Evans' own clients in order to increase the lobbyist's earnings.
When U.S. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz sentenced Evans to 2 1/2 years in prison that September, the judge uttered a phrase that has hung over the State House ever since.
"He took advantage of a culture of corruption that has been tolerated by lobbyists, legislators and the citizens of Maryland," Motz said.
"The evidence in this case has revealed that there is a mess in Annapolis," he said.
That so-called "culture of corruption" became an issue in Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s successful campaign for governor in 2002.
The Evans case and Motz's stinging words helped prompt the Assembly to pass a sweeping lobbyist ethics law in 2001.
The law for the first time required paid lobbyists to register and gave the commission the power to discipline them if they violated laws or regulations.
After serving his sentence, Evans attempted to register with the commission on behalf of five clients in May 2002.
That October, the agency revoked his certification, a decision he appealed to the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.
That court ruled in Evans' favor and the commission appealed.
Daniel M. Clements, Evans' attorney, criticized the commission's attempt to apply the law to his client's pre-2001 conduct.
"The ethics commission wanted to change 80 years of Maryland law to make an example of Mr. Evans," Clements said.
Two members of the appeals court sided with the ethics commission, which was represented by former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs.
Judges Dale R. Cathell and Glenn T. Harrell Jr. said the commission was not depriving Evans of his rights.
"Evans had no vested right to registration to practice as a lobbyist in the state of Maryland," the judges wrote.
"The practice of public professions, such as law, medicine and, by analogy, lobbying, is not a right, but a privilege subject to conditional public licensure."
The ruling could also be good news for another flamboyant lobbyist with a mail fraud conviction, Bruce C. Bereano.
The commission suspended Bereano for 10 months after finding that he entered into an illegal contract in September 2001 - two months before the law took effect.
A decision against Evans would have weighed heavily against Bereano, who is challenging the commission's decision in Howard County Circuit Court on the retroactivity issue - among other grounds.
Whether the Evans case rules out the disciplinary action against Bereano will be up to Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr., who held a hearing on Bereano's appeal last month but has not issued a ruling.
The commission contended at the time that Kane could uphold the suspension and $5,000 fine against Bereano even if the appeals court ruled in favor of Evans. Bereano would not comment on yesterday's ruling.
Robert Hahn, counsel for the ethics commission, also declined to comment, saying he had not read the opinion.
Building client list
Evans has continued to practice while appealing the revocation of his registration, though he has kept a lower profile than before his conviction.
The lobbyist said yesterday that he has been gradually building his client list and now has eight to 10 clients.
Evans has played an active role in the debate over permitting slot machines at Maryland racetracks as lobbyist for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association.
Among his other clients are the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association, the Baltimore Orioles and the team's owner, Peter G. Angelos.
Sun staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.