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  • Md. legislative report

  •   In the State House and the Halfway House

    By Daniel LeDuc
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, February 17, 1999; Page A01

    Bruce Bereano awoke yesterday morning in a narrow, cramped bed, a name tag on the wall above his pillow identifying him to the security officer who checked beds every other hour through the night. He showered and brushed his teeth in a tiny green-tile bathroom he shares with a drug convict.

    Then he dressed in a natty tan checked suit and slid into tasseled loafers. He stepped into the daylight outside a Baltimore halfway house, where his beige Mercedes waited to carry him to Annapolis and surroundings more familiar.

    Maryland's most flamboyant lobbyist, the state capital's first million-dollar-a-year advocate, was headed back to work. Convicted of federal mail fraud charges in 1994, Bereano was sentenced to work release and is now doing what he always does when the General Assembly is in session: buttonholing lawmakers in the marble hallways of the State House, trying to make the magic that has made him, in the minds of many, the most effective lobbyist in town.

    Bereano was eager to be seen yesterday, his first full day of lobbying after a mandatory week's absence getting acclimated to the halfway house, which will be his home for the next five months.

    He tromped the hallways of the House Office Building, sticking his head in the doors of legislators to offer a booming "Good morning!"

    Then he strolled across the street to climb the grand steps of the State House, pausing for a hug from Del. Mary Dulany-James (D-Harford), whose father was the Senate president who gave Bereano his first staff job in Annapolis 26 years ago. "He's like an uncle," she said.

    With a stack of manila file folders under his arm, Bereano marched inside in search of legislators he needed to sweet-talk. Their names were listed on a sheaf from a yellow legal pad, and he checked each off once his message had been delivered.

    Freshman senator Alexander X. Mooney (R-Frederick) joined him for lunch at the corner table at the Maryland Inn, where Bereano has held court over countless breakfasts, lunches and dinners – all in the name of advancing his clients' interests.

    After toiling at his law office just down the block from the governor's mansion, Bereano jumped back into the Mercedes to beat his 6 p.m. curfew at the halfway house.

    The attention surrounding his case stems from his long-standing notoriety in Maryland: He almost single-handedly changed the state's political culture two decades ago, raising to an art form the use of political contributions as a lobbying tool.

    Representing such interests as the Tobacco Institute and lottery machinery manufacturers, Bereano pushed lobbying's legal limits, showering gifts on lawmakers, snaring inside information, contributing heavily to campaigns, killing legislation that would harm his clients. His relentlessness as a fund-raiser prompted the legislature to ban lawmakers from receiving contributions during the session.

    Now he is an Annapolis dynamo by day, but at night he shares a room with a drug convict in a dingy former brothel set among East Baltimore's warehouses. Their two-room suite is lighted by fluorescent bulbs, and the faint scent of antiseptic cleansers lingers. Bereano is trying to cheer it up with a few rugs and some framed waterfowl prints.

    After he spends five months at the halfway house, his sentence calls for five months of home detention at his house on Whitehall Creek near Annapolis and three years' probation. He has paid a $30,000 fine. He has been disbarred in the District and expects authorities to try to strip him of his Maryland law license

    "It's been a humiliating experience for Bruce," said one longtime legislator who counts Bereano as a friend. "Will he learn from it? No."

    Blazed the Trail

    Being a lobbyist is a lot like being a politician running for reelection. Everybody has to be your friend; you smile and shake a lot of hands. Short and wide with a bass voice that could rattle glass, Bereano, 54, is deferential to every lawmaker he greets. He has been at it since 1977, when, after having served as a senior aide in the state Senate, he hung out a shingle as a lawyer and people began asking him to lobby.

    Early on, there were only a few lobbyists in town. Then, during the Reagan administration, power devolved more and more to state legislatures. Special-interest money and influence followed. Lobbyists picked up the scintillating scent; today there are more than 550 registered lobbyists in Maryland.

    "No one told me how to lobby. No one taught me how to lobby. I just did what felt natural and legal," Bereano said. "I was politically active before I was a lobbyist, and I never thought of separating the two."

    What felt natural was pouring campaign contributions into lawmakers' pockets. He even created his own political action committee, the Bereano-PAC, to reward the right legislators.

    Until recently, he also spent thousands on flowers and candy for female legislators, secretaries and committee aides. He threw lavish parties. He still routinely sends around a list of sporting events for which he can supply tickets, telling lawmakers to check off the ones they want to attend. New legislators receive fancy badges with their names engraved and the state seal affixed, courtesy of Bereano.

    He hands out expensive cigars, and in January, all lawmakers received a hand-carved desk sign reading legislator; only a couple sent them back.

    Although such gestures are appreciated by many lawmakers – most of whom make far less than Bereano – they cite his aggressiveness and grasp of issues as a larger reason for his success. Most call him trustworthy. Many call him a friend. When he prepared to leave for the halfway house, 10 current and former legislators threw him a going-away party.

    "He has set the standard in terms of effectiveness of lobbying since before I got here," said House Majority Leader John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery). "The way he does it is he believes this is one huge family down here, and he takes care of people like his family. The legislature is his life. He's as much a fixture in state government as those desks out in the chamber."

    Indeed, other than obvious pride in his 26-year-old law student son and an addiction to watching sports, Bereano, who is twice divorced, appears to have no life outside politics. His friends are legislators or judges or clients. His socializing revolves around fund-raisers and political soirees. Those connections serve another purpose, too, allowing Bereano to provide a commodity to legislators that is more valuable than contributions or cigars: insider political advice.

    Bereano has helped launch some fledging political careers and resuscitated some older ones. Former governor Marvin Mandel, convicted of bribery, was freed from prison after Bereano helped him obtain a pardon from President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

    His friendships with Maryland's most powerful political figures sometimes appear to leave Bereano humbled. He sounded truly awestruck, for example, when he described sharing a car ride with Mandel and former governor William Donald Schaefer to the funeral of a state official last year – not at all like the cocky lobbyist who two weeks ago said to some law students, only half-jokingly: "Have I ever bought a legislator? No, but I've rented them."

    Holding Court

    The corner table at the 200-year-old Maryland Inn – just steps from the State House – has doubled as Bereano's desk for nearly two decades. Across its white linen tablecloth, agreements have been brokered, legislation decided, egos massaged, backs slapped, confidences shared.

    That wheeling and dealing came crashing to a halt in 1994. After a trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Bereano was convicted of eight counts of mail fraud.

    "The only problem he had is he had too high a profile, and sometimes when you have too high a profile, people try to knock you off," said Schaefer, now the state comptroller, who was governor at the time.

    Privately, many legislators agree, saying they think his conviction for skimming money from clients and funneling it through employees and family members to legislators as political contributions was much ado about nothing. Prosecutors said Bereano had siphoned $16,000 from his clients – none of whom complained – during the 1990 elections, but they could document only $600.

    Others are more skeptical about the lobbyist's actions, saying he had to know he was doing wrong.

    "He should have known what he did was against the law. I can't believe that he could ask somebody to write a check and reimburse them and think that's okay," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D-Baltimore), chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

    Bereano insists he did nothing to defraud his clients, several of whom testified on his behalf.

    "He always lived on the edge of what can be done legally or illegally," said Dominic Fellini, president of the Maryland-D.C. Vending Association, Bereano's first lobbying client, which stuck with him throughout his troubles. "But I don't think he's ever gone over. For clients, that's pretty good."

    Still, Bereano fumbled when asked why he funneled contributions through family members and employees if what he was doing was on the up and up. It was a rare moment when he was at a loss for words.

    Bereano has long relished his reputation as a fighter.

    Always for his clients: "If there's a loophole that's advantageous to my clients, I will use it. There's nothing wrong with that," he said.

    And now for himself: "I would love to vindicate myself," said Bereano, who is pressing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. "I don't need it in terms of my inner peace, but I want it."

    After his conviction, clients fled and his income plummeted to one-tenth of what it had been. Legal wranglings kept him in court and delayed his sentencing until December. Bereano used the intervening time to steadily rebuild his business. Last year, his income of $433,549 made him the fourth-highest-paid lobbyist in Annapolis.

    "He won't let this stop him," said Schaefer, who, after Bereano's conviction, had declared him "finished. "I've seen people convicted of a crime like this and they never recover. They hide. They're embarrassed. That's not Bruce. I'm sure he was embarrassed, but he kept on moving."

    Always the Lobbyist

    The 80 residents of Bereano's halfway house have been beneficiaries of his lobbying already. He arrived with cigarettes and cigars. "I had them already from my work," Bereano said. And when he discovered that one of the pay phones near his room didn't work, he used one that did to call Bell Atlantic's lobbyist for help. The next day, a repairman arrived.

    Last night, Bereano drove his Mercedes back to the halfway house to settle in for an evening of reading bills, drafting notes and making phone calls from one of those pay phones. Currently, he is allowed to be away from the halfway house eight hours a day. By this morning, he'll be ready for another day of legislative warfare, and he is scheduled to end the day dining – early to make it back by curfew – with old friends Schaefer and Mandel.

    "I look with askance at him continuing his lobbying function while he's serving his punishment," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's). "I don't think it serves him well. I don't think it serves the body well. I don't think it serves his clients well.

    "I question his methods. But I'd be less than candid if I didn't say he was one of my closest friends."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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