The events began simultaneously across the state: $125 for breakfast with a Senate whip in Annapolis, $100 for the same with a delegate in Aberdeen, $100 for omelets with the chairman of a fiscal committee in a Baltimore ballroom.
Twelve hours later, at the Greenbelt Marriott, many of the same faces gathered for a $250-a-person reception for Del. Rushern L. Baker III (D), chairman of the Prince George's County delegation. Some late-arriving lobbyists had hustled down Interstate 270 from a Frederick fund-raiser to make the party before it ended.
This was Thursday, less than a week before the start of Maryland's General Assembly. Maryland lawmakers packed in six events on a single day--more than a dozen for the week--but one that drew gasps was for Montgomery County Del. Peter Franchot (D), the new chairman of the House subcommittee on transportation and the environment.
Cost: $500 for breakfast. Location: Baltimore's marble-and-mahogany Center Club, far from his Takoma Park district. Lobbyists grumbled that they were being shaken down, but Franchot was unapologetic.
"One reason I picked that amount is campaigns are expensive," he explained.
At few times on the political calendar do the interests of lobbyist and lawmaker coincide more seamlessly than in the days before the start of the General Assembly, highlighting a relationship that is simultaneously invaluable to the workings of a part-time legislature and fraught with ethical challenges.
The prelude offers a window on Annapolis at work--lobbyists seeking a last-minute edge with lawmakers, lawmakers seeking last-minute contributions before the state's moratorium on fund-raising during the 90-day session begins.
Such relationships are common in other states. But Maryland's strict campaign finance rules limiting donors to giving $10,000 in a four-year election cycle mean lawmakers must raise money as early as possible, placing a premium on a lobbyist's fund-raising clout. And few times are more opportune than right before a legislative session opens.
"I think there's an obligation to go to represent your clients," said Laurence Levitan, a lobbyist and former state senator from Montgomery County who chaired the Budget and Taxation Committee. "Once I was getting money. Now I'm giving it."
In Virginia, which convenes its legislature Wednesday, at least six fund-raising events were scheduled last week. Across the Potomac River, Maryland lawmakers had at least that many scheduled Thursday--the same day an Annapolis task force reviewed proposed ethics legislation designed to limit financial ties between lobbyists and lawmakers.
More than 600 lobbyists are registered to work in Annapolis this year, doing a job that collectively earned them more than $16 million last year. They are ubiquitous and useful, influential brokers of information and campaign contributions. In contrast to members of Congress, Maryland lawmakers have tiny staffs and operate under severe time pressure to review 2,000 bills.
"Who does that leave to bring the information to the table? The lobbyist," said John O'Donnell, executive director of the Maryland Ethics Commission for 20 years.
But drafting regulations to sunder lobbyist ties to lawmakers has become an annual frustration for the General Assembly, and as the legislature prepares to convene Wednesday, the lawmaker-lobbyist relationship is again the subject of lament.
Gerard E. Evans, Maryland's top-grossing lobbyist, and Del. Tony E. Fulton (D-Baltimore) are under federal indictment for allegedly plotting to create work for Evans by preparing legislation threatening to his clients. Fulton allegedly received a real estate commission from Evans in return. Both men have denied wrongdoing and plan on continuing their work this session.
State House leaders have proposed prohibiting business ties between lobbyists and lawmakers. The proposal follows a measure passed last year that bars lobbyists from buying individual lawmakers a meal.
"Perception, that's what is driving all this," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany), who intends to push the bill this year despite suggestions that it be studied over the summer. "The power of perception."
In a packed ballroom at Baltimore's Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, more than 500 guests paid $100 each Thursday to benefit Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), the Appropriations Committee chairman.
With his clients' cash and consent, lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano purchased five tables worth $5,000. He passed out tickets to his clients' invited guests--including power brokers such as House Majority Leader John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery)--and guided them to tables as his assistant checked off names on a clipboard.
Bereano was operating in the wiggle room between state ethics laws and campaign finance rules regulating the way lobbyists and lawmakers interact. His clients' donations flowed into Rawlings's account days before the session, and the tickets he gave out to lawmakers do not need to be disclosed on ethics reports.
"My clients do the inviting and I'm the maitre d'," said Bereano, whose activities inspired a 1991 ban on lobbyists running their own political action committees. "It's part of my service."
As a member of the State House leadership, Hurson attended two events on last week's day of marathon fund-raising, starting in Baltimore and ending in Greenbelt. He said he considered himself more a guest of Rawlings's than of Bereano's clients, which include cable companies, tobacco interests and bingo parlors, even though they paid for his ticket.
"Various corporations have bought tickets to these events and there are seats available," Hurson said. "Where I'm going to sit doesn't really matter."
Legislators have balked at giving the public a clearer view of their pre-session fund-raising. Last year, the General Assembly killed a bill that would have required lawmakers to file an additional campaign finance report between November and February if they collect more than $5,000 before the session.
The General Assembly banned fund-raising during the session three years ago and, in 1991, drew a fine line that prohibits lobbyists from raising money for lawmakers. Indeed, despite the rules, legislators send lobbyists packets of tickets that they are expected to forward to clients. Under state law, lobbyists are only allowed to advise clients on fund-raising if asked.
"It makes my staff have to sit down, put it in an envelope and put it through the postage machine," said William Pitcher, a prominent Annapolis lobbyist whose clients include gambling, construction and tobacco interests. "I become a campaign worker for them. It's a pain."
At the Rawlings event, Taylor served as master of ceremonies, introducing speakers and reviewing recent books he has read while guests delved into omelets and bacon. Surveying the room, Taylor told the crowd he had been talking to a reporter the previous day about fund-raising before the session.
"There is no question," he said, "that this is the granddaddy of them all. It's a who's who of Maryland politics. And I would be insulted if I
weren't a part of it."
Staff writer Craig Timberg contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano works the crowd at a fund-raiser for Del. Howard P. Rawlings.
CAPTION: Lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, left, makes introductions during a fund-raiser in Baltimore for Del. Howard P. Rawlings.