Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, who has wined and dined and contributed to and cajoled Maryland legislators on behalf of his clients, stood before a panel of judges yesterday with only his powers of persuasion as he pleaded with them not to disbar him because of his 1994 conviction for mail fraud.
But only seven minutes into his presentation to the Court of Appeals, Maryland's highest court and the final arbiter of who may practice law here, Bereano, 54, was peppered with questions from several of the seven judges who appeared skeptical that he showed any remorse.
"This is a very atypical case and a very unusual case," Bereano told the judges. He was convicted of fraudulently billing four clients a total of $600, claiming the money was for entertaining lawmakers but instead using it for campaign contributions funneled through relatives and employees. His clients have maintained they did not feel cheated.
"Atypical or not--I don't know if by using 'atypical' you mean this time you got caught--the point is you were convicted," said Judge William W. Wenner. "Do you accept the fact you defrauded them?"
"Respectfully, I do not," Bereano answered.
"Then how in the world were you convicted?" the judge asked him.
Bereano said he did not defraud his clients. "Defrauding them is harming them and cheating them. They themselves did not believe that."
Said Wenner, "The jury did."
Yesterday, Wenner was one of four judges from the Court of Special Appeals and a retired judge who filled in for five Court of Appeals judges, including Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, who recused themselves from the disbarment hearing. Attorneys said that many recusals is unusual and a sign of Bereano's longtime association with Maryland's power structure.
The state Attorney Grievance Commission is seeking to have Bereano disbarred because of his conviction. Commission attorney Kendall Calhoun said no lawyers who have been convicted of mail fraud in Maryland have avoided being disbarred.
"Mr. Bereano has repeatedly said he accepts his conviction but it's very obvious that he does not accept there was any wrongdoing on his part," she told the court. That his clients didn't complain "doesn't change the fact . . . this is dishonest conduct by an attorney."
Bereano has been disbarred in the District and in the federal courts. He said he is hoping for only a suspension of his law license in Maryland. It could be several weeks before a decision is issued.
"I'm very humbled and I'm very embarrassed to be before this court," he told the judges, imploring them to "look at the entire Bruce Bereano, the lawyer, the person."
At a fact-finding hearing in Anne Arundel Circuit Court in September, Judge Eugene M. Lerner recommended to the Court of Appeals that Bereano not be disbarred because the lawyer "has suffered greatly." At that hearing, character witnesses who testified for Bereano included a former governor, three sitting judges and a member of Congress.
A fixture on the Annapolis political scene for nearly three decades, Bereano was the first lobbyist in Maryland to earn more than $1 million a year. His income plummeted after his conviction, but he has made a steady comeback and now is among the top five lobbyists in the state in terms of billing.
He served five months in a halfway house earlier this year, traveling daily to his law office just two blocks from the State House where legislators would sometimes come to meet him because the prison system blocked him from lobbying physically in the Capitol.
He has been allowed to practice law and has been making court appearances and attending legislative fund-raisers and other political events. On Thursday, he completed electronic monitoring supervision and was able to remove an electronic ankle bracelet that tracked his whereabouts for five months.
Losing his license to practice law would not limit Bereano's lobbying practice, but he said in an interview, it would "take away my being. I do not want to die not being a lawyer. That's what this is all about."