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Government & Politics Justice

Lobbyist Bereano Is Trying to Get His Law License Back

Bruce Bereano in his signature “Lobbyists have issues” T-shirt at the Tawes Crab and Clam Feast earlier this year. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

A top-earning lobbyist in Annapolis is trying to get back the law license that was stripped from him almost two decades ago.

Bruce C. Bereano, a fixture in the State House for more than 40 years, has filed a petition with the Maryland Court of Appeals for reinstatement to the bar.

Bereano’s petition was filed last month, along with dozens of pages of supporting documents. They include letters supporting his effort from current and retired judges, prosecutors, local officials, former state delegates and his former boss, U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (though Hoyer’s letter was written in 2016 when he was still party whip).

It is unclear whether Bereano’s bid for a new law license will be challenged by the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission, which has a deadline to respond to the petition in late November.

Bereano was disbarred by the Court of Appeals on Jan. 13, 2000, about five years after he was convicted in U.S. District Court of seven counts of mail fraud – which Bereano sought to appeal for several years.

Bereano did not respond to a phone message left at his Annapolis office Tuesday. In a personal statement filed with the Court of Appeals petition, Bereano wrote that he has felt incomplete since losing his law license.

“[S]ince January 2000 truly and honestly I have never felt complete in terms of my being. I went to law school and practice law deliberately because that is the profession and life activity I wanted to pursue and perform,” he wrote. “It is always what I wanted to be. I want to die as a lawyer – that is who I respectfully chose to be in life.”

Bereano also writes of learning the law while a clerk in the U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., and of helping clients in civil, criminal, traffic and family law cases for three decades.

Bereano said he is not seeking reinstatement of his law license for financial reasons – he reported $1.9 million in lobbying compensation in 2018 – but because he wants to go back to advocating not just in the State House, but in the courtroom.

“I loved it with a passion and enthusiasm, and saw that I really had an opportunity to take a person’s problem and get it resolved in as best a situation as possible under the given facts and circumstances,” Bereano wrote. “I gave my all to my clients, and took quite seriously that I had their life problem in my hands for resolution.”

The conviction

The charges Bereano faced in federal court stemmed from inappropriate campaign finance activities.

According to records from the 1994 case, Bereano would ask employees of his law firm to make political contributions to candidates in their own names, which he would reimburse them for. Bereano would also have employees cash company checks and return the cash to him, which he would give to family members so they could make contributions in their names to his political action committee.

The checks cashed by employees were recorded in accounting books as “legislative entertainment,” a fee that was charged to some of Bereano’s lobbying clients.

Federal prosecutors alleged a fraud of $16,000, but a federal judge said the losses established during the course of the case were only $600. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals noted that some of the law firm’s accounting records had been destroyed by an employee, hampering evidence prosecutors could have used to prove additional payments.

Bereano said at the time that his clients were satisfied with his services and did not feel they’d been defrauded, however the clients also did not authorize and would not have knowingly paid for the political contributions that were made.

Bereano appealed the conviction, which was upheld by the Fourth Circuit. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court wasn’t granted.

When it came to consideration of Bereano’s continued practice of law, Anne Arundel Circuit Court Judge Eugene Lerner recommended “a sanction less than disbarment” after considering a petition for disciplinary action against Bereano by the Attorney Grievance Commission. But the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of disbarment, the usual sanction for attorneys convicted of a crime involving fraud.

But Bereano’s case would take another turn.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the appeal of former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling and narrowed the interpretation of the honest services fraud statute to include only schemes involving bribery or kickbacks.

Bereano sought review of his own conviction based on the ruling, but was denied.

“[T]here could be no charge or claim against Mr. Bereano under the mail fraud statute as it exists today,” according to his petition for reinstatement. “Notwithstanding this, Mr. Bereano recognizes and appreciates that his conduct was inappropriate. He is remorseful and appreciates the consequences of his actions. If he were able to travel back in time, Mr. Bereano would have done things differently.”

Since the disbarment, Bereano has been self-employed as a lobbyist in Annapolis – where he has been one of the highest-paid hired guns for decades. The list of his more than 65 clients includes Expedia, MedStar Health, Choice Hotels, Washington Gas and the Town of Ocean City.

Another appeal

In September, Bereano field his petition for reinstatement – a 90-page packet that includes 26 letters of support and a letter of good standing from the Maryland State Ethics Commission, the state office that oversees lobbyists.

Some of the letters are undated. Most were written this summer. The letter from Hoyer was written in 2016.

Bereano, who joined the bar in 1969, began working as legal counsel to the Senate of Maryland in 1974, first for then-Senate President William S. James (D) and later for Hoyer, who succeeded James.

“I know Mr. Bereano to be a committed, loyal, and trustworthy friend. His intentions are honest, his understanding of people and politics immeasurable, and his loyalty unparalleled,” Hoyer wrote. “He is a man of his word and one who feels compelled to help those he can without hesitation.”

Additionally, Stephen D. Peck, who was chief financial officer for Phillips Publishing, one of the clients Bereano was convicted of defrauding, has offered to submit a letter of support for Bereano’s petition to be readmitted.

“[W]hile I am accepting and leaving alone the jury’s verdict of guilty, I said under oath, very clearly in the trial, that I and my company, at no time, thought or believed that Bruce had done anything wrong. We never felt defrauded nor did we ever believe that Bruce did not give fair and honest services to my company,” Peck wrote.

Others who wrote letters for Bereano include former NAACP president and congressman Kweisi Mfume; former state delegates Joseph F. Vallario Jr. and Daniel M. Long, who is also a retired judge from Somerset County; a former investigator for the Carroll County State’s Attorney’s Office, a special counselor to the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office and an assistant state’s attorney from the Anne Arundel County; current and former nonprofit leaders including from the Baltimore Street Car Museum and Greater Baltimore Urban League; and retired U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams Jr. (Bereano is working pro bono to secure funding for the Judge Alexander Williams Jr. Center for Education, Justice and Ethics.)

In his petition, Bereano lists awards he’s received as a lobbyist from the Legislative Black Caucus, Associated Utility Contractors of Maryland, and the Maryland State Conference of the NAACP, among others. Also included are a four-page list of more than 120 charitable organizations he’s donated to since Jan. 1, 2000 – though no amounts are listed – as well as a multipage list of pro bono lobbying clients throughout the years.

As required by law, Bereano gave the Attorney Grievance Commission copies of his tax returns, bank accounts, credit report and all civil and criminal court actions he’s been a party to.

Bereano also offers in the petition to participate in the Court of Appeals professionalism course for newly admitted members of the bar.

Timothy F. Maloney, a former state lawmaker and an attorney at Joseph, Greenwald & Laake, wrote that Bereano had respectfully waited decades to file his petition for reinstatement to the bar to demonstrate his fitness.

“Mr. Bereano has more than amply demonstrated his rehabilitation, competence and fitness to practice and I strongly urge his reinstatement to the Maryland Bar,” Maloney wrote. “I believe he will be a credit to the profession in the later years of his life, just as he was more than 30 years ago.”

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Lobbyist Bereano Is Trying to Get His Law License Back