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Neighborhoodsby Elizabeth Suman9:50 amJun 9, 20100

Bill to ban felons from lobbying in Baltimore County withdrawn: Bereano wins, ethics loses

Above: Bruce Bereano

You’d think Baltimore County Council member Vincent J. Gardina had kicked a puppy or burned a flag, to hear the jowl-jiggling reaction in some quarters to his recent proposal that felons be barred from lobbying the Baltimore County government.

Maryland mega-lobbyist Bereano threatened to sue Gardina, complaining that the measure singled him out. (Bereano is a felon, thanks to a 1994 conviction on mail fraud after funneling $16,000 of clients’ money into campaign contributions without telling them.)

Gardina’s bill wasn’t really about ethics, but was “obnoxious, vindictive” and aimed at him, Bereano argued, retaliation because he had worked on behalf of clients to defeat Gardina’s tanning parlor bill, which would have banned minors from using indoor tanning facilities.

Then, The Baltimore Sun chimed in and, instead of cheering on an effort to clean up government in Towson — and recommending a similar ban on the state level —  argued that restricting lobbyist-felons  wouldn’t be effective and that Bereano’s success stems from “not the cutting of ethical corners but the way he has so thoroughly injected himself into the Maryland political community.”

Finally, at Monday night’s county council meeting, Gardina withdrew the bill, which reportedly had little if any support.

The reluctance of the political establishment to even consider shunning highly-placed lawbreakers might seem surprising, but it’s really part of a well-established Maryland tradition.

Soft on ethics?

The huffy response to Gardina’s proposal was no surprise coming from Bereano, who was disbarred, but whose career as one of the state’s top-earning lobbyists was only briefly derailed by his 1994 conviction.

Clearly unrepentant, his clout was on display as he battled the sanctions. (The parade of character witnesses included sitting judges, a former state trooper and past state bar association presidents. Five of the seven judges on Maryland’s highest court had to recuse themselves when hearing his appeal.)

After serving his federal time at a halfway house and on home detention, Bereano resumed his lucrative shmoozy career in Annpolis, once again pulling down the big bucks.

(In 2008, his lobbying proceeds were more than $806,000. Among the special interests he represents are some of those most in the news this year, including the Licensed Beverage Distributors of Maryland, which successfully blocked efforts to end the ban on out-of-state wine shipments and is trying hard to kill the proposed Baltimore city bottled beverage tax.)

Bereano also survived a second ethical lapse, an improper contingency contract he entered into with a client. (After another Court of Appeals battle, he he beat that rap with no formal finding of wrongdoing and a $29,000 fine.)

Last year it was speeding: Bereano was reported to have gotten ticketed for speeding 23 times over 13 years, and in nine of those stops he was clocked at over 80 mph. Once again there was no big consequence for Bereano:  he got probation before judgment.

Of course, Bereano is not the only fallen political figure warmly welcomed back into the Annapolis fold.

Also still plying their lucrative trade comfortably in Annapolis:  former Governor Marvin Mandel (ousted from office in the wake of a 1977 mail fraud and racketeering conviction that was later overturned) and lobbyist Gerard E. Evans (He was convicted of felony wire fraud in 2000 and temporarily lost his right to lobby courtesy of the State Ethics Commission, but persuaded the Maryland Court of Appeals to reverse their decision in 2004.)

Even gentle joking about the ethical lapses in these men’s pasts seems to be regarded as a breach of etiquette among the political crowd in Maryland.

At a roast Bereano organized for Mandel’s 90th birthday earlier this year, Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot actually dared a mild reference to the fact that Mandel served time in federal prison. As governor, Franchot said, Mandel took an interest in improving the judiciary — and “even tried it out as a customer.”

Awkward silence.

“Folks, this is a roast,” Franchot had to remind the gathering, according to Laura Vozzella’s account of the event in The Sun.

(Bereano later speculated that most people couldn’t bring themselves to poke fun at Mandel, “they’re so overwhelmed by his age, his accomplishments, his stature — you can’t roast someone like that. Are you gonna roast the pope?”)

Maryland governors make a great show of saying they will stay away from those who tote unsavory ethical baggage around Annapolis, but somehow, they never seem to be able to pull it off.

During the run-up to his election as governor, then Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, pledged that he would never have contact with lobbyists convicted of felonies.

Under his opponent, Republican governor Robert Ehrlich, “the second floor of the State House looks like a parole meeting,” O’Malley’s spokesman quipped, in a news release at the time.

But this past April, as the Sun reported, the ban appeared to be off:  Gov. O’Malley acknowledged that he met with Evans and Bereano to discuss a collective bargaining bill.

Elsewhere in America…

Why is Maryland so gentle with certain highly-placed felons? Here and in many states, there are laws restricting the ability of  felons to get licensed in various professions: nurses, dental hygienists or exterminators.

Some states actually have seen fit to prevent them from getting licenses to lobby, a position of potentially great power and influence over public policy. Maryland may not have the fortitude to prohibit proven transgressors like Bereano from lobbying, but there are states, a quick survey shows, where such measures have been proposed . . . and even enacted.

In Alaska, for instance, as of 2007, “anybody that has been convicted with a felony crime of moral turpitude may not register as a lobbyist,” said Patty Ware, the lobbying administrator for the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

“Moral turpitude” encompasses a long list of crimes including murder, manslaughter, sexual assault, unlawful exploitation of a minor, coercion, arson, and burglary.

One of the most high-profile targets of the Alaska law was former Juneau lobbyist Geoffrey Bullock, who was banned from lobbying because he was convicted of three counts of wire fraud in 1997 for misusing company funds in a fish processing deal between Alaska and Russia and restricted from lobbying.

A ban was proposed in Wisconsin last year, after a lobbyist was charged with felony theft and found to have a bit of a history. (Katherine M. Venskus had pleaded no contest in 2002 to another felony, a  forgery charge.)

Elsewhere efforts to keep felons from lobbying at the state level have been more uneven.

Graham Sloan, of the Arkansas Ethics Commission, said there is no “general prohibition against a felon registering as a lobbyist. . . however, there is a provision that says anybody convicted of three violations of the lobbyist registration/reporting laws shall be permanently prohibited from acting as a registered lobbyist in Arkansas.”

In Connecticut, interestingly, the state is tougher on former government officials or employees when it comes to lobbying.

“The Connecticut Code of Ethics for Lobbyists is silent with respect to a prohibition on lobbyist registration involving someone who never before held a state office or employment and who is convicted of felonies not related to public office or state employment,” said Peter Lewandowski from the Connecticut Office of State Ethics.

However, Connecticut law also states: “no former executive, judicial or legislative branch or quasi-public agency official or state employee convicted of any felony involving corrupt practices, abuse of office or breach of the public trust shall seek or accept employment as a lobbyist or act as a registrant pursuant to this chapter.”

In Florida, meanwhile, they wouldn’t want to harsh out the lobbyists too much, so their only restriction seems to be that they cannot lobby while in prison.

Registration guidelines there state: “A person convicted of a felony after January 1, 2006, may not register as a lobbyist until that person has been released from incarceration and supervision, has paid all costs and restitution, and has had his or her civil rights restored.”

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