The man loitering in the main hall of the Maryland State House is barely recognizable as the high-rolling, million-dollar-a-year lobbyist sent to federal prison two years ago. His dark hair has gone gray. His rich overcoat has been replaced by drab khaki. Even his eyes are a more humble blue now that he no longer wears azure contact lenses.

What remains the same is the mission that brings Gerard E. Evans to the marble halls of the State House. Despite a federal conviction for defrauding clients of more than $400,000, despite a ruling from the State Ethics Commission permanently barring him from lobbying, the man universally known as Gerry is back in business.

"It's wonderful," Evans said in an interview .

Those who study ethics in government are astounded by Evans's audacity and bewildered that anyone would hire a convicted felon to return to the scene of his crime. Evans represents four clients (down from nearly four dozen in his heyday), including trial lawyer Peter G. Angelos and the Prince George's County lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police.

"I can't imagine people didn't take him aside and say: 'Are you nuts? What are you doing?' " said Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government in Denver. "The whole situation is rather strange and sad."

Some lawmakers disapprove of Evans's return. Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton, former chairman of the legislative panel that polices lawmaker ethics, called it "wrong" and said Evans's presence "does some harm to the legislature."

But Middleton (D-Charles) has taken meetings with Evans, as has Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's), who testified for the prosecution at Evans's trial. Although the Ethics Commission has voted to deny Evans a lobbying license -- based on ethics reforms prompted by his case -- the law allows him to continue working while his case is on appeal. Given that fact, Middleton, Pinsky and others said, what can they do but welcome him back?

"Gerry let me down, and he let a lot of other people down. I would have advised against this," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), who gave Evans his first job in Annapolis and is godfather to two of his five children. But "it's hard to tell people how to support their family."

With Evans back at work, Maryland is probably the only state in the nation with two convicted felons in its lobbying corps, Kerns said. The other is Bruce C. Bereano, a close adviser to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). Even before Ehrlich's election in November, Bereano had bounced back to his old station among the top-grossing lobbyists despite serving time in a halfway house for making illegal campaign contributions.

Evans, 47, says he has no desire to follow Bereano back to the top of his trade. Once, Evans billed clients more than $2 million a year and took home as much as $42,000 a month. Now, he said, he gets more satisfaction from going to his kids' basketball games. Sure, he used to drive a Porsche. Now, he said, the Toyota is fine.

"That desire to be number one partially contributed to the pickle I was in," Evans said. "I'm a different person than was here before. You can't go through what I've been through and not be changed."

Evans likens his experience to an illness. "You ask, 'Why me? It's not fair. It's not right.' But you have to get past that, because it really doesn't matter why it happened. We all know justice in this country is largely accidental. And I am a better person for having gone up there."

"Up there" is the federal prison in Cumberland, Md., where Evans was inmate No. 33950-037. He still carries his prison ID card in his wallet and will show it to anyone who asks. The photo shows a much heavier man (Evans has shed 40 pounds) wearing a blue prison jumpsuit and an expression of stone-faced endurance. Even now, Evans says that he committed no crime and that he is guilty only of "mistakes in judgment."

Prosecutors accused Evans of carrying out an elaborate scheme to extract an extra $400,000 in fees by convincing paint companies to believe that legislation harmful to their interests would be submitted to the General Assembly. Del. Tony E. Fulton (D-Baltimore) was accused of conspiring with Evans by twice threatening to introduce the bill Evans's clients feared most, a measure that would vastly increase the chances that manufacturers would be held liable for harm done to children by lead-paint poisoning.

After a five-week trial, a jury acquitted Fulton of some charges and deadlocked on others. But the panel convicted Evans on nine of 11 counts of violating mail and wire fraud statutes.

In September 2000, U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz sentenced Evans to 30 months in prison and accused him of taking "advantage of a culture of corruption" in Annapolis.

In Cumberland, Evans said, he ran the prison law library and helped other inmates work toward their GEDs. He started writing a novel about a naive young committee clerk who grows disillusioned by the big-money politics that controls the Maryland General Assembly. And he said he gained a new appreciation for the injustices of the system, particularly with regard to young black men caught up in federal drug stings.

Evans spent less than a year behind bars. Transferred to a District halfway house, he got a job at ACS State and Local Solutions, a Washington technology firm, where he began organizing a program to help other ex-convicts find work. Evans said he still spends 60 percent of his time on the program and never would have returned to Annapolis if potential clients hadn't started calling.

"They said: 'We love you. We want you.' I said, 'Fine,' " Evans said. "Most people have been accepting in a very heartwarming, heartfelt way. People have said: You're back. You've paid your dues. Let's move on."

Still, few of Evans's former clients have returned. The state lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police decided against hiring him, as did the state firefighters association. But two local chapters have signed him up, at least partially to help Evans.

"If I thought in any way this would hurt our organization, I wouldn't have done it," said John Sparks, president of Montgomery County Career Fire Fighters union. "But it is a chance to get him back on his feet."

Evans also is working for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association in its fight to legalize slot machine gambling. Executive Secretary Wayne W. Wright said Evans is "a really decent human being" who "deserves to work and make a living and support his family." Wright said he thinks Evans was railroaded by federal prosecutors.

Angelos, who has fought for years to bring paint companies to account for the ravages of lead-paint poisoning, said he hired Evans because "he knows his way around, and people like him."

Plus, Angelos said, "when you consider who is claiming to have been taken advantage of, well. . . ." He chuckled. Evans's behavior "obviously was unacceptable. But finally, he's on the right side."

A few weeks ago, Evans opened a nicely appointed office right on Main Street, with his name etched into the glass door. He would be poised for a smooth reentry into the clubby world of Annapolis if only his case hadn't spurred the General Assembly to pass a slew of new ethics laws, including one that bars lobbyists convicted of ethics infractions from ever reviving their practices. The law was written with Evans in mind.

Last fall, the Ethics Commission cited the law when it voted to permanently revoke Evans's license. Evans appealed, arguing that the law took effect after his conviction. An attorney general's opinion supports his case, arguing that the commission cannot punish Evans retroactively.

Last week, Ehrlich approved the hiring of a highly respected former prosecutor to represent the Ethics Commission. The case is scheduled for a hearing in March, and many in Annapolis expect it will not be resolved for months, if not years.

Meanwhile, Evans is making his rounds in State House offices, confident that he will ultimately prevail. Losing his license would not be the end of the world, he said. Annapolis "doesn't define me. I don't need to be here for any reason, money or otherwise.

"But in a series of injustices," he said, "this is the latest that shouldn't stand."

Veteran lobbyist Gerald E. Evans works in his new office in Annapolis after a term as federal prison inmate No. 33950-037.