Maryland's top-grossing lobbyist and a veteran state lawmaker entered not guilty pleas to mail and wire fraud charges before a federal judge in Baltimore yesterday.
Gerard E. Evans, 44, and Del. Tony E. Fulton (D), 48, are facing 11 counts each in what prosecutors say was an elaborate scheme to defraud several paint companies and asbestos manufacturers of more than $400,000 in lobbying fees.
After the pleas were entered, attorneys for the two men walked their clients past a row of television cameras and stopped briefly to comment on the indictment.
Evans, the Annapolis lobbyist who has pulled in more than $1 million in annual fees in recent years, stood quietly as his attorney, Robert C. Bonsib, told reporters that Evans will vigorously fight the charges.
The lobbyist has "ethically and professionally represented his clients" and "will fight this matter at trial," Bonsib said.
Moments later, Fulton left the courthouse flanked by attorneys. One of them, Richard Bennett, paused to ask the public to withhold judgment until all the facts come out and to keep in mind that the Baltimore delegate "has not been accused of cheating his constituents in any way."
Fulton, who has kept quiet since the indictment was handed up Dec. 15, added only, "I don't want to lose focus on my constituents."
That could prove difficult. While both men vowed that the charges would not disrupt their work in Annapolis during the three-month Maryland General Assembly session that starts in mid-January, Magistrate Judge Susan K. Gauvey tentatively scheduled the trial to begin March 6, with hearings for pretrial motions set for Feb. 24.
Attorneys for Evans and Fulton said they would ask the court to delay the trial until after the legislature adjourns.
During today's joint arraignment, the men stood with their attorneys and one at a time entered not guilty pleas. Each was released on his promise to return for trial. Gauvey ordered them to surrender their passports but denied a request by Assistant U.S. Attorney Dale P. Kelberman that the two be restricted to travel within Maryland.
Gauvey told them that each of the 11 counts against them could carry a prison term of up to five years and fines up to $250,000 if they were convicted.
The indictment alleges that between December 1996 and last April, Evans and Fulton collaborated to make it appear legislation would be introduced that would make it easier for victims of lead or asbestos poisoning to sue companies making those products.
Evans is then accused of asking his paint and asbestos company clients for increased fees to fight the legislation.
Six paint companies and three asbestos manufacturers, most of which are based out of state and could not closely monitor the proceedings in Annapolis, retained Evans, fearing damage from the legislation, the indictment says. No legislation on the subject was introduced.
The indictment states that after Fulton helped make the legislation appear imminent, he received a $10,125 commission for handling a commercial real estate deal in Annapolis for Evans. Fulton is a Baltimore-based real estate agent who had done few commercial real estate deals and had done little work in Annapolis.
The indictment capped a lengthy FBI investigation that became public in May when investigators subpoenaed a letter, signed by Fulton, to Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
Evans's partner, John R. Stierhoff, also was under investigation. Stierhoff was not charged, and a lawyer familiar with the case said Stierhoff was given immunity and was compelled to testify before a federal grand jury.
Evans is among the best-known figures in Annapolis political circles. He is a confidant of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) and is the former Democratic chairman in Prince George's County.
Fulton has represented West Baltimore since 1987. Eight years ago, he was tried and acquitted of misusing campaign money and diverting legislative money for campaign purposes.