ANNAPOLIS – Influential state lobbyist and Annapolis lawyer Bruce C. Bereano was prohibited from practicing law in Maryland by a Court of Appeals ruling Thursday.
The seven-judge Court of Appeals decided disbarment was the appropriate sanction for Bereano, convicted of seven counts of federal mail fraud in 1994.
“This is the saddest day of my life,” Bereano said of the ruling, which came on the heels of the opening of the 2000 legislative session. This General Assembly session marks the first time he will be able to roam the halls of the Statehouse since he served his sentence.
“I’ve practiced law enjoyably, enthusiastically and with great pride for the past 20 years,” he said. “But today, that comes to an immediate halt.”
Lobbyists do not have to be lawyers to work the Legislature on behalf of their clients, Bereano said.
Judge Lawrence F. Rodowsky, who wrote the 28-page opinion on behalf of the court, said Bereano, who represented himself, showed an “inability fully to acknowledge his wrongdoing.”
In the Court of Appeals proceedings, Bereano said he did not intend to harm his lobby clients and, regardless, “the misconduct involved lobbying, not legal clients, and therefore was not directly related to the practice of law.”
A federal district court in 1994 convicted Bereano, the first state lobbyist to earn $1 million in a year, of requesting checks from four of his lobbying clients, and, without their permission, using the funds for political contributions by his family members and fellow employees.
Bereano reimbursed his clients for the four $150 donations but labeled the compensation “legislative entertainment” on his official billing records.
He was sentenced to five months of home detention and five months in a halfway house and fined $20,000.
He appealed the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, only to be disbarred in the District of Columbia and federal courts and have his fine increased $10,000.
Bereano requested the Court of Appeals temporarily suspend his law license rather than disbar him.
Judge Eugene M. Lerner of the Circuit Court for Anne Arundel County heard the case in September 1999 and accepted the conviction facts, but recommended “a sanction less than disbarment.”
U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, former Gov. Marvin Mandel, judges and individual clients in Circuit Court trial testified on Bereano’s behalf.
Hoyer and Mandel were not available to comment on Thursday’s decision. Lerner took the good character testimony into account when recommending a lighter sanction for Bereano. He said the lobbyist “has performed many beneficial acts for the citizens of the community, which should be balanced against the violation…and the serious error in judgment on [Bereano’s] part.”
But Melvin Hirshman, bar counsel for the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission, which petitioned the Court of Appeals for disciplinary action, said Bereano’s high-profile colorful personality might have clouded the facts of the case.
“He was convicted of a federal criminal felony. Whenever this happens we recommend disbarment,” he said. “I don’t think the fact that this was Mr. Bereano makes any difference.”
The Court of Appeals accepted the allegations of Bereano’s federal indictment as facts and could find no “compelling extenuating circumstances” that would warrant a penalty less than disbarment.
Bereano is not restricted from lobbying this year’s General Assembly, a session he said he’s looking forward to working. But without the practice of law, he said, he feels “empty and hollow.”