Former colleagues of once-powerful state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell said they are saddened that he plans to plead guilty today to taking bribes while in office - and somewhat concerned that his behavior will tarnish the public perception of the General Assembly.
Lawmakers say the Democratic senator's fall is painful to watch. His family is well-known in the General Assembly - his son, Eric, is in his second term in the House of Delegates - and many of his colleagues admired him as a man who rose from blue-collar roots to become a skilled politician.
"He was a person of immense talents - humble beginnings and immense talents," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who once survived a coup attempt by Bromwell. "The whole situation is tragic because he did have splendid abilities."
Bromwell, 58, once a larger-than-life figure in the legislature who as chairman of the Finance Committee had a hand in issues ranging from slot machine gambling to electricity deregulation, could serve as much as eight years in jail for accepting payoffs from a construction company in exchange for help winning government contracts.
His wife, Mary Patricia, 44, could serve as much as 2 1/2 years in prison under a separate plea agreement, though her attorneys hope she can avoid jail time. Prosecutors say she accepted a salary for a no-show job for the contractor, Baltimore-based Poole and Kent.
The case against the former senator is the result of one of the largest public corruption investigations in recent Maryland history. In all, the scheme resulted in $2.1 million in illegal profits and kickbacks. The company so valued Bromwell's services that it offered to pay him $80,000 a year to postpone his retirement from the Senate, according to the indictment presented by prosecutors.
He eventually left the Senate and became head of the Injured Workers' Insurance Fund, a quasi-public agency.
The plea deal also spares Annapolis the potentially embarrassing spectacle of seeing lawmakers, lobbyists and government officials testify about life around the State House. In 2000, at the conclusion of Maryland's most recent major corruption trial, four weeks of testimony prompted a federal judge to charge that a convicted lobbyist "took advantage of a culture of corruption that has been tolerated by lobbyists, legislators and the citizens of Maryland."
While federal prosecutors had originally rejected any plea deal from Bromwell that did not require him to provide incriminating evidence against other officials, the agreement expected to be entered in court today does not include that demand.
Advocates for campaign finance reform have seized on the Bromwell case as proof that the state needs to enact public funding of campaigns to remove the taint of money from Annapolis.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, who has repeatedly tried to enact public financing, said Bromwell's behavior adds to voters' skepticism about whether legislators make decisions for the public's benefit or their own. Limiting fundraising would help restore confidence, he said.
"It's a sad situation because it does reflect on the Senate as an institution," Pinsky said. "If we ignore this, it's at our own peril."
The case has been a bombshell in Annapolis since the Bromwells were indicted two years ago, but it was the disclosure of FBI transcripts of a bawdy Bromwell at booze-soaked dinners that helped make him a household name.
During a 2001 dinner at Ruth's Chris Steak House in downtown Baltimore, Bromwell bragged about his influence with the city's power elite, including H&S Bakery magnate and Harbor East developer John Paterakis. He used profane and sometimes racially charged language.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said he and others feel sorry for their former colleague and particularly for his family, which includes two young children. However, Frosh said, the actions Bromwell is pleading guilty to were egregious. "We're not talking about any loopholes here," Frosh said. "We're talking about very basic violations of law."
Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier, who took over Bromwell's seat in 2002, said voters in the Northeast Baltimore County district still think of him fondly, despite the recent disclosures. He did a lot of good along with the bad, she said.
"He helped us with the education budget and school construction and nursing homes," Klausmeier said. "He was so very proud of all of that."
Pinsky said Bromwell was "bombastic" in the Senate but still a nice guy.
"I probably disagreed with him on about every issue," Pinsky said. "But he always treated me nicely and respected me."
Miller didn't even hold a grudge against him - despite the coup attempt, Bromwell held on to his committee chairmanship. Miller said Bromwell came from "a great Baltimore County family" that was close-knit and a true part of the community.
Miller said he thinks Marylanders will look on Bromwell's mistakes as those of an individual, not as a taint on the General Assembly.
"I would assume it reflects upon the person himself and not on the body as a whole," Miller said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Find previous coverage at baltimoresun.com/bromwell