Sen. Bromwell: a case of how the not-so-mighty have fallen

November 23, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

Standing before the bar of justice to answer for his crimes, former state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell was accorded a stature he never quite attained.

He was hailed as a mighty poobah, one of the "most powerful," a lion of the legislature whose wish could not be safely ignored.

Those who watched him in General Assembly councils remember a somewhat different figure.

He was a bar owner who flaunted his rough edges. He was a big man with a dark, wavy forelock. He laughed a little too loudly. He made macho observations, as if daring the politically correct to object. There was a brash and boyish, maybe even a naive, quality about him.

His offensive language in the presence of an acquaintance with a hidden wire - recording information for government investigators - was not surprising.

But he had his following. With the help of then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - and the Republican votes Mr. Ehrlich could deliver - he made a run at toppling Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. He failed, but survived to corral a big state salary after he left the Senate.

After his conviction, friends and associates wrote to the court on his behalf. Congressman C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Baltimore banker Ed Hale and former Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini were among them.

Mr. Sabatini and Mr. Bromwell became close friends after one of Mr. Sabatini's sons was killed in a motorcycle accident. It was more than the politician's generic solicitude, Mr. Sabatini said.

"He was constantly checking on me, trying to see how I was doing," Mr. Sabatini said. "I always thought he was outrageous but not corrupt. I can't defend what he did, but he was a charming, very genuine guy."

Mr. Sabatini had this story: After a course of sensitivity training for senators, Mr. Bromwell arrived back at his office to say, "I've just finished the course and I want one of you bitches to get me a cup of coffee."

And, said others, what could we expect from Annapolis and its "culture of corruption"? That formulation came to us from U.S. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz, after presiding in the case of an Annapolis lobbyist manipulating the process.

Mr. Bromwell was convicted of taking money over and under and around the table, cashing in on his exalted chairmanship. But the culture Judge Motz referred to is more nuanced, more deeply ingrained in the processes of government, politics, campaign fundraising and friendships.

In the Bromwell story as it unfolded, there was an element of desperation - as if high living had finally left him no choice. There was a no-show job and construction work done at a fraction of the cost, bringing to mind the long-departed clubhouse bosses, not the smoother exploits of the modern culture.

It may make little difference in the long run, but there is a difference between the sins of a now-contrite Bromwell and those of the players who navigate the turbid legislative waters without getting soiled or wet.

He got 6 1/2 years behind bars - and an outpouring of letters. This sort of support for the fallen has become part of the culture. The legislative campus, well-shrubbed and named for past and present leaders, thinks of itself as a family compound. Its members have operated on both sides of the street, as lobbyists and legislators. They know one another's personal foibles and frustrations as well as their political needs. If one of them should stumble, they may say, "There but for the grace of God ..."

The lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, for example, had his defenders when he was in trouble. As with Mr. Bromwell, letters showed the outline of his influence. Mr. Bereano's network came into sharper focus when, having been convicted of a felony, he found himself about to be disbarred. Several of the state's highest-level appeals court judges had to remove themselves from his case because they had close political and personal relationships with him. Maybe he had helped them win an appointment to the bench.

Tommy Bromwell had no such cushioning. He was tried in the federal, not state, courts. And he would be sentenced by Judge Motz, the man who saw Annapolis as a modern Augean stable.

His wife, he insisted, ought not to suffer for his crimes. I am the culprit, he said. I pulled her into it. The censorious Motz agreed, imposing a sentence of one year and a day, half the potential term.

The title and the trappings had been stripped away, but some of the Bromwell charm was still there.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column usually appears in The Sun on Sundays. His e-mail is fsmith@wypr.org.

Ellen Goodman's column will return next week.

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