Maryland's highest court yesterday disbarred Annapolis lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano for defrauding four of his lobbying clients in 1994, ending a legal drama that involved one of the most flamboyant and well-connected figures in state politics.
The decision is a crushing defeat for Bereano, who waged an all-out effort to keep his law license and who viewed being a lawyer as central to his self-image. He was the first lobbyist in the state to earn $1 million a year, representing special interests that included cigarette makers, gambling concerns and a host of other clients.
Bereano said he will help his law clients find new lawyers as soon as possible. But the decision--which takes effect immediately--will not interfere with his ability to lobby. Maryland lobbyists are not required to be lawyers.
Bereano received a five-month sentence last year to a Baltimore halfway house and then spent five months on work release. Wearing an electronic bracelet, he plied his trade during last year's session of the General Assembly by traveling from the halfway house to his law office just two blocks from the State House, where he lobbied by phone and through meetings there with legislators.
Usually unperturbable, Bereano yesterday said he cried when he received word from the Court of Appeals.
"I'm no longer a member of the bar of the state of Maryland," he said in interview. "It's obviously one of the saddest days of my life. It's like my whole inner being has just been carved out of me."
The court cited Bereano's "apparent inability to fully acknowledge his wrongdoing" to explain its ruling. The judges devoted fully one page of the 26-page decision to a portion of the transcript of the December hearing when Bereano pleaded to keep his license and only be suspended from practicing law.
At the time, Bereano was asked if accepted the fact that he defrauded his clients and answered, "Respectfully, I do not." He said defrauding them meant having some intent to harm his clients.
Asked yesterday if he still held to that thinking, he said, "I have never believed and never will believe that I defrauded or deceived my four lobbying clients that I was convicted of defrauding and deceiving."
He noted that the clients testified that they never felt cheated by Bereano, who had been charged with taking $600 he billed to clients for entertainment expenses and using the money to make campaign contributions to lawmakers in the name of family members and employees.
News of Bereano's disbarment was the hallway chatter in Annapolis yesterday. House Majority Leader John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery), a longtime friend of the lobbyist, said he was not surprised by the decision.
He noted that no lawyer convicted of mail fraud had been allowed to continue to practice in Maryland. "I think it would be unusual for the court, given what he did, not to disbar him," Hurson said.
But he added that he did not think that it would harm the ability of Bereano, who Hurson considers of Annapolis's most effective lobbyists, to continue his work of trying to influence the legislature.
"There are lots of lobbyists who are not lawyers," Hurson said.
Bereano fought his disbarment with all the fervor he is known for in Annapolis. During an extraordinary hearing in October, he trotted out dozens of character witnesses, including three sitting judges, former governor Marvin Mandel and U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). Though he was not required to offer a recommendation to the Court of Appeals after that fact-finding hearing, Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Eugene M. Lerner was impressed enough by the testimony to recommend that Bereano not lose his law license, saying he "has suffered greatly."
But Bereano got a much different reception from the Court of Appeals when he pleaded his case there in December. With the lobbyist so well-acquainted with the legal and political leadership of the state, five of the seven judges recused themselves. Specially assigned and retired judges were brought in to hear the case and they sharply questioned Bereano, skeptical that he showed any remorse.
CAPTION: Lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, disbarred yesterday by Maryland's highest court, is one of the most flamboyant and well-connected figures in state politics.