Maryland lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano should not be disbarred for a 1994 mail fraud conviction because the lawyer "has suffered greatly and learned much throughout this ordeal," an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge said yesterday.

The recommendation of Judge Eugene M. Lerner came after a two-day hearing in which 39 witnesses testified that Bereano was honest and should be allowed to continue practicing law.

The hearing produced an extraordinary array of character witnesses, far more than is typical in such cases, lawyers said. The witnesses included U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), former governor Marvin Mandel, Chief Judge of the Maryland District Court Martha F. Rasin, Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Nelson W. Rupp Jr., two other judges, two former county executives--one from Prince George's County, the other from Anne Arundel--and an array of business executives.

The state Attorney Grievance Commission is expected to ask the Maryland Court of Appeals to revoke Bereano's law license. The Court of Appeals has final say on who is fit to practice law in the state.

An attorney for the commission, Kendall Calhoun, said she could not recall a case in which a lawyer convicted of mail fraud was able keep his license. She declined to comment on Lerner's recommendation, which court procedures did not require him to make.

Bereano does not need his license to continue as a lobbyist. He is one of the top five moneymaking lobbyists in the state and is certainly one of Maryland's most colorful figures. In the past, he has lavishly entertained lawmakers at parties, dinners and sporting events, and he has been a formidable fund-raiser for many.

This year, he spent five months in a federal halfway house and is serving an additional five months of home detention for his conviction in U.S. District Court for mail fraud. In the spring, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.

He was convicted of using money from four clients for political contributions, instead of for the legislative entertainment he had billed the clients for. Prosecutors were able to prove $600 was misspent, but they contended that the amount was much higher.

The clients testified at his trial and at his hearing this week that they never felt cheated.

"While the minor degree of the harm to the victims may not be considered in the criminal case, it certainly may be considered by the Court of Appeals in establishing the appropriate sanctions," Lerner wrote. "It is your writer's belief that [Bereano] has suffered greatly and has learned much throughout this ordeal."

"It is not contemplated by this court that [Bereano] will ever engage in this type of activity in the future," he said. "In fact, [Bereano] has successfully, ethically and prudently practiced law since his conviction until the present."

Bereano has been disbarred in the District and in Maryland's federal courts. He is fighting hard to retain his Maryland license because he said the practice of law is central to his self-identity.

"I'm incredibly grateful to Judge Lerner for his thoughtfulness and his understanding and compassion and his looking at my entire life as a human being and a practicing lawyer," Bereano said.

Staff writer Jefferson Morley contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Bruce C. Bereano thanked the judge for "his thoughtfulness and his understanding and compassion."