In one courtroom, a former state senator testified he'd been given $2,000 a month and a luxury car by a doctor doing business with state regulators. A few doors away, a galaxy of current and former Maryland political leaders turned out to voice admiration for a powerful lobbyist who had been convicted of mail fraud.
For a good lesson on how things often really work in Annapolis, the best classrooms lately have been the courtrooms.
"It doesn't matter where you go in Annapolis. You can be in the bars. You can be in the State House. You can be in the courthouse. It's the same players, the same script," said Common Cause's Kathleen Skullney. "It's a marvelous pageant."
A generation ago, Maryland politics set a national standard for public corruption. In the 1960s and 1970s, Gov. Marvin Mandel was indicted on corruption charges, as were a speaker of the House, a U.S. senator, two congressmen, four state senators and four delegates, not to mention an assortment of county and local officials. Even Vice President Spiro T. Agnew's legal troubles began in his earlier days as Baltimore county executive and continued as governor.
The drumbeat of indictments has slowed in recent years, but cozy relationships, potential and real conflicts of interest and fodder for federal investigators continue. While some legislators take umbrage that anyone would question their integrity, many others say they're concerned about the public's perception of them and want things to change.
The public's view of things may have been colored last week when a congressman, judges and a former governor offered glowing testimonials to explain why Bruce C. Bereano, one of Maryland's top lobbyists, should be allowed to keep his law license despite a conviction for mail fraud.
On the same day last week that Bereano was in Anne Arundel County Circuit Courtroom 3-A and former state senator Larry Young was on trial on bribery charges in Courtroom 3-E, a group of lobbyists, citizens and current and former lawmakers assembled two blocks away for another meeting of a commission studying the relationship between lobbyists and state lawmakers.
"We're trying to develop more sensitivity of people in powerful positions of public perceptions," said U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D), a former Maryland House speaker who spoke to the group.
Legislators may harrumph that lobbyists can't buy their votes with fancy meals. But "the public doesn't understand. The public doesn't have a lobbyist buying them lunch," said Cardin, who headed a commission last year that studied the relationship between members of the General Assembly and lobbyists.
If the work of the current study group sounds like the same ground Cardin's group covered a year ago, that's because it is. There's plenty to study, and free lunches, which will be outlawed beginning Oct. 1, hardly are the worst of it.
With weighty issues such as health care and product liability law being decided by state legislatures rather than Congress, more money than ever is at stake in Annapolis and other state capitals, and more people than ever are ready to cash in on it.
"There's a lot on the line," said former House majority leader D. Bruce Poole, a Democrat from Washington County. "Some people feel pressure to cut corners."
Two of Maryland's top lobbyists are being investigated by the FBI about their relationship with Del. Tony E. Fulton (D-Baltimore). Those who have been interviewed by agents say the focus is on whether Fulton introduced a bill at the request of lobbyists Gerard Evans and his partner John Stierhoff, so that they could charge their clients to lobby against the legislation. All three deny any improper behavior.
Fulton is a real estate broker who handled the deal when Evans and Stierhoff bought a new office building in downtown Annapolis in December. The legislator had never handled an Annapolis real estate transaction before.
The purchase was just one illustration of how close some lobbyists and legislators can get in their personal and business dealings. Evans, the top-earning lobbyist in Maryland, testified in an unrelated trial last year that businesses and interest groups "go to legislators and ask for recommendations" about which lobbyists to hire. He later insisted he knew of no time a legislator did that for him.
But those businesses and interest groups know which powerful legislators are close to which lobbyists.
Bereano worked as a Senate staff member in the 1970s and has become a close friend of former governors Mandel and William Donald Schaefer. In fact, if the two-day hearing into whether Bereano should keep his law license is any indication, there are few in Maryland's political world with whom he is not friendly.
His hearing turned into a reunion of the powerful, a chance for friends to say hello to each other. Even Circuit Court Judge Eugene Lerner, overseeing the hearing, saw familiar faces. "How's your wife?" the judge asked Mandel as the former governor stepped down from the witness stand Tuesday.
After hearing all those gushing testimonials, Lerner recommended that Bereano not be disbarred, noting "he has suffered greatly."
The testimony at the Young trial suggested that direct payments to the part-time legislators may be a quicker way to cultivate allies in Annapolis.
Former state senator Decatur "Bucky" Trotter testified he was paid $2,000 a month and given the use of a Lincoln Continental to work as a consultant to the same doctor who prosecutors said bribed Young. The doctor, Christian Chinwuba, testified he thought his company was being singled out for scrutiny by state regulators because it was minority owned and wanted help.
Trotter, a Democrat from Prince George's County, served on the Finance Committee, which voted on health care issues. But he said he saw no conflict of interest--especially because he had disclosed his relationship with Chinwuba to the legislature's ethics committee. It was Trotter who introduced Chinwuba to Young.
Young, who had just lost his job with a Baltimore ambulance company, later signed a consulting contract with Chinwuba, who testified he thought Young could give him "tips" on state contracts. But Young said he later tore up the contract and returned the money paid him because he thought it might be a conflict of interest. After considering the story Friday, a jury acquitted Young of bribery.
CAPTION: LARRY YOUNG
CAPTION: BRUCE BEREANO
CAPTION: Leading Maryland lobbyist Bruce Bereano, left, talks with Del. Rushern L. Baker III (D-Prince George's) at the State House after serving a sentence for mail fraud.