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  Conviction Seen as Fuel for Reform

By Dan Beyers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 1, 1994; Page A32

The mail fraud conviction yesterday of Bruce Bereano, Maryland's highest paid lobbyist, will jump-start a sluggish overhaul movement already under way in the General Assembly, lawmakers and public interest groups said.

"This conviction is a wake-up call to the legislators in Annapolis," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland. "The fact that this case involved mail fraud charges made a mockery out of the state's lobbying laws. It just shows that the laws need to be strengthened so they can be used effectively in court."

After four years of on-again, off-again debate, Maryland lawmakers held hearings this fall on regulations to ban lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators, or at least to tighten disclosure requirements. Bereano was legendary in Annapolis for his gift-giving, whether it involved handing out tickets to such sporting events as Washington Redskins games or having flowers and candy delivered to lawmakers and their aides.

Bereano's conviction will "add some fuel to the engine of reform, but I think the train was already moving down the tracks," said Del. Leon G. Billings (D-Montgomery), who serves on the House Commerce and Governmental Matters Committee, which will consider the bills.

John E. O'Donnell, executive director of the state ethics commission, said that in the last several months he has fielded dozens of calls from lawmakers and other groups about possible revisions. "Obviously, this {conviction} is going to spur things along."

Prosecutors convinced a U.S. District Court jury that Bereano falsely billed four clients for about $16,000 in "legislative entertainment expenses" from May 1990 to June 1991, and then used the money to repay employees of his law firm and their family members for contributions made to candidates he chose.

Bereano was not charged with violating state campaign laws because the statute of limitations expired in 1991, prosecutors said.

Although Bereano's activities were not under investigation at the time, the Maryland legislature passed a law in 1991 prohibiting lobbyists from soliciting contributions for General Assembly candidates, or from serving on a fund-raising committee or acting as a campaign treasurer. The law allows lobbyists to give contribution advice, but only if asked -- a loophole that has drawn complaints from some who want to tighten the laws.

Sen. John A. Pica Jr. (D-Baltimore) said he hoped to revive a bill that would require lobbyists to report the names of lawmakers who accept meals or other gifts from them.

Bereano, who spent $140,000 on unspecified gifts to lawmakers during the 1991-92 reporting year, opposed the bill at a committee hearing. It died in committee.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. would not comment on specific bills but said the legislature would simply "continue its long-term efforts to enact effective campaign finance and other ethical reforms."

Gerard Evans, who was third among Maryland lobbyists in earnings this year, said he and some other members of his profession would support a ban on gifts from lobbyists to members of the General Assembly. But he worried that the restrictions could go too far.

"If we have to write down every single time we have a bagel with a legislator, we're going to be doing nothing but filling out reports," Evans said. "You can't buy a legislator with a bagel."

Staff writers Fern Shen and Richard Tapscott contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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