Bruce C. Bereano, the flamboyant Annapolis lobbyist who once served time in a federal halfway house for making illegal campaign contributions to state lawmakers, has come under new scrutiny by the Maryland Ethics Commission.
Ethics Commission investigators recently questioned two Democratic lawmakers from Baltimore about Bereano, asking whether he had played an improper role in raising money for their reelection campaigns last year. Del. Talmadge Branch and Del. Hattie N. Harrison both said they told investigators that Bereano was not involved in fundraising.
"Bruce has not helped me raise money. Well, he has helped me raise some money in the past, but not this election," Harrison said yesterday. "I told them he volunteered in my campaign -- that was all."
Added Branch: "I said I couldn't help them."
The nature of the new inquiry into Bereano was unclear. Bereano declined to comment. Suzanne Fox, the Ethics Commission executive director, said state law prohibits her from confirming or denying the existence of an investigation.
Under a 1991 Maryland law inspired by Bereano's fundraising tactics, lobbyists hired to represent corporations and other special interests before the General Assembly are barred from raising money for state campaigns, serving on political fundraising committees or acting as campaign treasurers. Lobbyists who violate the law could be barred from lobbying for up to three years.
While Bereano was a highly visible part of the 2002 campaign, working most aggressively on behalf of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., no allegations have been made public.
Ehrlich fundraiser Richard Hug said Ethics Commission investigators have not contacted him.
Bereano "was a big supporter of Ehrlich, but I never saw anything that he did that was unethical," Hug said. "He came to fundraisers and made his clients aware of fundraisers, but that's the extent of it."
In 1994, Bereano -- then the first million-dollar-a-year lobbyist in Annapolis -- was convicted on federal mail fraud charges for falsely billing clients for illegal campaign contributions. He was disbarred as a lawyer, but staged a comeback, returning to lobbying even as he served out a five-month sentence in a Baltimore halfway house.
Since then, he has rebuilt his practice, representing a host of interests, from vending machine operators to fitness centers.
Last summer, Bereano was once again mired in controversy with revelations that he had allegedly required clients to pay him a contingency fee of 1 percent for winning state contracts, an arrangement that would violate state law. Bereano also exaggerated income from another client by more than $100,000 in reports to the Ethics Commission, which are filed under penalty of perjury.
Bereano has said his erroneous report was an honest mistake and that the 1 percent fee is not an illegal contingency contract.
Ehrlich aides have sought to distance the new administration from one of its biggest boosters. During his campaign, Ehrlich promised to clean up "the culture of corruption" in Annapolis.
Several weeks ago, Ehrlich's chief counsel, Jervis Finney, said Bereano has not visited Ehrlich's offices on the second floor of the State House.
"Bereano hasn't talked to Bob since October," Finney said.