Within the first hour, the witnesses at yesterday's court hearing included a member of Congress, a sitting D.C. Superior Court judge and a former Maryland governor.

Usually when a lawyer is facing disbarment after being convicted of a felony, the hearing is pretty straightforward and quick. The character witnesses usually don't include a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge, a former Washington County Circuit Court judge, the chief judge of Maryland's District Court, a former state trooper, business executives, former bar association presidents and lobbyists.

But then it's not every day one of the state's most influential lobbyists faces the loss of his license to practice law. Bruce C. Bereano, convicted in 1994 of federal mail fraud charges, already has had his D.C. license taken away and now faces losing his Maryland license.

He has launched a drive to hang on to it with a ferocity that has been matched only by the intensity of his lobbying for clients in the hallways of Annapolis. Yesterday's hearing--which will continue today--had all the earmarkings of a testimonial dinner. Some of the Maryland's legal and political elite took their turns on the witness stand, greeting each other with smiles and handshakes.

It started with U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), whom Bereano worked for when Hoyer was president of the Maryland Senate in the 1970s. Despite Bereano's conviction, "it is still my view that he is tenacious and conscientious in his advocacy of his clients and he does so within the law and legal ethics," he said.

Then came D.C. Superior Court Judge Richard Levie, who was Bereano's George Washington University Law School classmate and former law partner: "Bruce is one of the few people I've known who has a real love for the law. . . . I can't say I ever questioned his honesty."

Next was former Democratic governor Marvin Mandel. Bereano was instrumental in helping him win a presidential pardon for his own corruption conviction, though that unpleasantness wasn't mentioned in the hearing. Federal prosecutors didn't have much of a case against Bereano, Mandel testified. But "they just couldn't give up. They had to find something--a mail fraud case in which no one was defrauded."

Bereano was convicted in 1994 in U.S. District Court for mail fraud. He had billed four clients for entertaining legislators but had instead used the money for political contributions and to reimburse several of his staff for contributions they made. Prosecutors proved $600 was misspent but said it was much more.

At the time, Bereano was Maryland's top lobbyist. Representing dozens of powerful clients, including the tobacco industry, he had been Annapolis's first lobbyist to earn $1 million a year.

He served five months in a halfway house this year and remains under house arrest, able to leave his home only to work at his lobbying practice, until November. He was wearing his ankle monitoring bracelet in court yesterday. Though he doesn't need to be a lawyer to lobby, practicing law remains a passion for him.

Representatives of the four clients he was convicted of defrauding--at $150 each--each testified yesterday that they never felt cheated. One of them, Edward Murphy, chief executive officer of Dental Benefit Providers, a dental insurance company, even postponed a business trip to Palm Springs yesterday to say nice things about Bereano. "All this stuff over 150 bucks is a waste of resources," he said when asked why he had shown up for Bereano. "He's paid enough. He's repaid 100 times over."

Kendall Calhoun, who represents the Attorney Grievance Commission, said the commission will likely recommend disbarment. The hearing is being conducted by Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Eugene M. Lerner, who compiles the court record and forwards the matter to the Court of Appeals for a final decision. The Court of Appeals is not likely to rule for several months, but few officials could recall a hearing like it.

"I would say this is extraordinary," Calhoun said of the array of testimonials offered on Bereano's behalf.

CAPTION: Bruce C. Bereano, who was convicted in 1994 of federal mail fraud, is waging a campaign to retain his law license.

CAPTION: Bruce C. Bereano, left, greets former Maryland governor Marvin Mandel (D) in January. Mandel testified on Bereano's behalf in the hearing yesterday.