In federal court in Baltimore yesterday, Thomas L. Bromwell Sr. leaned back in his chair, the practiced pose of a confident committee chairman used to receiving witnesses.
But when the judge entered the room, it was Bromwell who sat up straight in the defendant's seat and answered a series of questions that ended with his guilty plea to racketeering conspiracy and tax evasion.
The man who once called himself "a rainmaker" admitted that as a Democratic state senator from Baltimore County, he had accepted bribes from a construction company executive in return for help in securing publicly funded contracts.
Baltimore-based Poole and Kent used Bromwell's influence in contract talks to outflank competitors and gain millions of dollars in construction work originally earmarked for minority-owned subcontractors, according to court papers. In return, former Poole and Kent President W. David Stoffregen arranged for Bromwell to receive more than $200,000 through a salary paid to his wife for a no-show job and thousands of dollars' worth of discounted materials for the former senator's Parkville home.
For nearly two years after being indicted in October 2005, Bromwell, 58, and his wife, Mary Patricia, 44, who was charged in the "criminal, money-making enterprise," had protested their innocence and insisted that they looked forward to their day in court. But yesterday, as both pleaded guilty, they appeared far less defiant.
Refusing to address reporters gathered on the courthouse steps after the 30-minute hearing, a grim Bromwell - whose son is a member of the General Assembly - watched from a distance as his attorney pleaded for the public to remember the legislative leader's accomplishments in Annapolis. Bromwell's crimes, attorney Barry J. Pollack said, consumed just a "small fraction" of the 24 years he spent in elected office.
As he walked away with family members and supporters, Bromwell told reporters that the plea deal will enable him to "start living instead of dying."
"I will be all right," he said.
The couple will return to court Nov. 16 for sentencing by U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz.
The U.S. attorney for Maryland, whose office led the prosecution, issued a call yesterday to others in Annapolis to come forward if they see similar kinds of public corruption in their midst.
"This was not a mistake, this was not a technical violation," Rod J. Rosenstein said outside the courthouse, adding that his office can "help people have a clean and honest government" by prosecuting wrongdoers.
Rosenstein, who inherited the case when he was appointed to the post two years ago, also appeared to address some of the office's critics, who had accused federal prosecutors of launching politically motivated investigations or obtaining guilty pleas from public officials on relatively minor charges that carry hefty penalties.
If Motz follows sentencing guidelines, Bromwell could receive a prison term of 6 1/2 to eight years after pleading guilty to racketeering conspiracy and tax evasion.
Federal guidelines call for Mary Patricia Bromwell to receive a sentence of 2 1/2 to three years in prison for mail fraud, Rosenstein said. His office intends to argue that a prison term is appropriate.
Her attorney, William B. Purpura, said a more reasonable sentence would be a combination of home detention and probation. Keeping Mary Patricia Bromwell out of prison has been a priority for the couple, who have two young children.
The Bromwell plea agreements are the most significant development so far in the largest public corruption investigation in recent Maryland history. Seven other defendants in the case have pleaded guilty.
Questions remain about possible illegal activities by other officeholders.
Court papers in the case show that Stoffregen, the former Poole and Kent president, told investigators that he gave "cash and other benefits to other elected officials." The documents do not name them.
It also remains unclear why the Bromwells' former attorneys left the case on the eve of trial in March. Related documents remain under seal by the judge, amid a continuing grand jury investigation.
Rosenstein declined to comment on those issues yesterday.
The plea agreement holds Bromwell, who left office in 2002, at least partly responsible for $2.1 million in illegal profits and kickbacks related to the scheme with Stoffregen, attorneys said.
The Bromwells agreed to hand over the house where Poole and Kent did construction work valued at more than $85,000. Stoffregen provided the labor and materials free or at reduced cost, according to his plea agreement.
Under the plea agreement, the government cannot tap Bromwell's state retirement funds or the $400,000 he received in compensation after he left his job as president of the Injured Workers' Insurance Fund, lawyers said.