Judge upholds panel's decision to punish lobbyist Bereano

Md. ethics commission assailed deal with client

December 31, 2004|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,SUN STAFF

A Howard County circuit judge upheld yesterday a State Ethics Commission decision to punish high-powered lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano for what it called an illegal business arrangement with a client.

If the ruling stands, Bereano could be suspended from State House lobbying for 10 months and fined $5,000, a blow for the Annapolis regular, who has battled over the past decade to restore his reputation after a 1994 federal mail-fraud conviction.

Bereano said last night that he is "very disappointed" in the court's decision and will file an appeal Monday with the Court of Special Appeals.

"The opinion is in direct conflict with a recent, unanimous Court of Appeals opinion ... and absolutely makes no sense at all," he said.

Maryland's highest court ruled in July that the commission exceeded its authority when it tried to revoke well-known lobbyist Gerard E. Evans' registration, saying the commission could not impose sanctions retroactively.

The ruling was a blow to the commission, which had tried to revoke Evans' license to lobby because of his 2000 fraud conviction.

That conviction, which prompted a federal judge to denounce a "culture of corruption" in Annapolis, had helped prompt legislators to pass a sweeping lobbyist ethics law in 2001.

Bereano has argued that his case presents the same issues that were raised by Evans, and he said last night that the ruling by Howard County Circuit Judge Raymond J. Kane Jr. "kind of baffles me." He said he is "very optimistic that it will be straightened out in the appellate courts."

Suzanne S. Fox, the State Ethics Commission's executive director, said yesterday that Evans' and Bereano's cases "are not related at all."

"They deal with different issues," Fox said, adding that in contrast to the Evans case, Bereano's alleged misconduct continued after the new ethics laws went into effect.

The ethics commission said that days before the new ethics law went into effect, Bereano entered into an illegal contingency contract with Mercer Ventures Inc. in which the company was to pay Bereano a percentage of the new business he brought it.

Fox said the commission members were "gratified" that "the Court agreed with the fact finding and the conclusions that were made by the commission."

Bereano has argued that his agreement with Mercer Ventures was not a contingency contract.

His appeal of the commission's initial decision was sent from Anne Arundel County to Howard because all of the Circuit Court judges in Anne Arundel recused themselves. The lobbyist has long-standing associations with the judiciary in Anne Arundel.

Under state law, Bereano can continue working as long as an appeal is pending. Bereano said last night that he looks forward to "vigorously representing" his clients during the coming General Assembly session.

The ethics commission began an investigation of Bereano's lobbying practices in 2002, after articles in The Sun raised questions about his lobbying agreement on a $42 million contract to provide foster-care services for 500 Baltimore children.

The ethics commission said Bereano's September 2001 agreement with Mercer Ventures Inc., also known as Social Work Associates, gave Bereano 1 percent of the first year's payments for any contract he helped the company secure from the state.

Mercer Ventures Inc. became Bereano's most lucrative employer for a time, paying him $139,379 from November 2001 to June 2002, at least $50,000 more than any other client.

At the time, Bereano maintained that he had done nothing wrong and said he was being targeted by other lobbyists and the commission.

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