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November 24, 2008

Lobb(y)ing Grenades

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

At a recent Board of County Commissioners hearing, Commissioner, and self-described "country lawyer, John L. "Lennie” Thompson, Jr., gave Annapolis lobbyists a piece of his mind. Lennie needs a new enemy; his style of bare-knuckled populist politics works best when he has a boogeyman to attack.


You see, he pretty well vanquished his last known enemy. He had run as the small-town David aligned against the evil home builders Goliath, and in spite of his numerous attempts to stop all forms of growth and development, Goliath continued to build. The one weapon Lennie needed came about thanks to the national economic collapse.


So, with home builders struggling to keep a minimal payroll, it's hard to sell anyone on how big a threat this industry really is. Into the enemy breech steps that most easily vilified of political personalities, the (gasp) registered lobbyist. If Lennie Thompson had to go to Central Casting, he couldn't come up with a better Snidley Whiplash than Bruce Bereano – at least in Lennie's mind.


Mr. Bereano's story has been told many times. A young attorney with an interest in politics, he worked for State Senate President Ed James and Steny Hoyer, now the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives. Before he ascended to the Congress, Mr. Hoyer occupied the state Senate President’s office from 1975-1979. Bruce Bereano built up an impressive rolodex, and his hands-on style, love of intricate policy debates, and encyclopedic memory for birthdays and anniversaries served him well.


He left the comfort and protection of the State House in 1977, starting up his own private legal/government relations practice. Mr. Bereano's flamboyant style and obvious success made him a target. One of his most successful efforts has been to make sure that his many clients acknowledge legislators who support their causes. One way to do that is with campaign contributions.


In 1994, Mr. Bereano was convicted of eight counts of mail fraud stemming from his use of clients funds for political contributions. He lost his license to practice law and was sentenced to a work release program for five months, and another five months of in-home detention. He served his full sentence.


Flash forward to Winchester Hall's public hearing room. Mr. Bereano drove up from Annapolis to represent Safeway, one of his clients, in the matter of mandatory bottle recycling. Without a long explanation, suffice it to say that the grocery chains don't want thousands of dirty bottles coming back to their stores.


Bruce Bereano's advocacy on behalf of his clients put him squarely in the sights of our populist commissioner. It just so happens that Mr. Thompson was the author of the bill Mr. Bereano was being paid to speak against.


Commissioner Thompson indicates that he was offended that Mr. Bereano did not identify himself as a registered lobbyist during his remarks. Ignoring the fact that Mr. Bereano did sign up to speak as a lobbyist, in accordance with county ethics laws, Commissioner Thompson also believes that the public needs to be told verbally that advocates are being compensated for their testimony.


It isn't so much that Commissioner Thompson holds these beliefs; it's more in how he exercises them that garners so much attention. He reminded the audience of Mr. Bereano's past, and he attacked the veracity of any statement made by a registered lobbyist.


As is his style, Commissioner Thompson wasn't satisfied to leave it there. Mr. Bereano wrote an editorial opinion that The Frederick News Post was all too happy to print. Mr. Bereano's letter defended his right to represent his client before the commissioners; and he reiterated his comment about uncivil treatment in a public meeting. Soon after, Lennie contributed his own column. In it, he reiterated the legal record of Bereano's conviction, challenged the veracity of statements offered by paid advocates, and then turned his self-righteous crusader viewfinder to anyone who serves in Annapolis.


Mr. Thompson asserted in his letter that the culture in Annapolis is such that legislators merely do the bidding of lobbyists such as Bruce Bereano. Let's do a little between the lines reading. I think Commissioner Thompson might be stuck in a temper tantrum, and his temper arises out of his demonstrated inability to get his legislative proposals adopted in Annapolis.


His pride in authorship confuses his idea of who is really to blame. He thinks it's the lobbyists, namely Mr. Bereano and the people who speak against his bottle bill. Truth be told, the opposition comes from the members of the Frederick County Legislative Delegation, almost none of whom seemed in the past to share Mr. Thompson's view of the value of a mandatory bottle return system (and a bottle excise tax) as a wise solution to a problem.


I have voted against the interests of lobbyists with almost every vote I have ever cast in Annapolis, as have my colleagues in the delegation. For starters, there are lobbyists on both sides of every issue. You're almost guaranteed to vote against a lobbyist when you cast votes for a living. In one very high profile case, I voted to expand the scope of practice for optometrists, something Mr. Bereano has fought aggressively against for most of his professional lobbying career. At the time, no vote was more critical.


When you elect someone to the General Assembly, typically you elect a person with expertise in one (or, at best, a couple) subject matter(s). If a newly elected official claims they know everything they need in order to vote on the range of subjects covered by the Annotated Code, trust me, they're a pathological liar. That applies to past and future Annapolis-aspirants, including those from Frederick County.


That's where lobbyists come in. Mostly lawyers, they're professionals who represent a group of clients; many specialize in specific areas of the law and code. They schedule meetings with legislators to present their clients viewpoint, including handing over reams of technical studies, reports, and background.


There are over 500 registered lobbyists in Annapolis. Certainly, a few of them have had experience with the criminal justice system, as is the case in most job categories. It doesn't really matter that Commissioner Thompson hates lobbyists. If it weren't them, it would just be someone else!


As far as the truthfulness of these lobbyists, look at it practically. A lobbyist thrives on relationships, with staff and legislators. Any lobbyist who intentionally misleads or hides the truth would be quickly exposed. It's happened before. Once "outed" for dishonesty, that lobbyist could never again gain the trust of anyone in Annapolis. Their ability to honesty and aggressively represent their clients best interests is their stock in trade.


Somewhere it's written that forgiveness is an important virtue, but not in a campaign handbook!


It seems safe to assume that Mr. Thompson desires to run for state office in 2010. His pursuit of a "no paramours on the payroll" bill and commentary about moral behavior suggests he is eyeing the District 4 Senate seat held by David Brinkley, of New Market.


It doesn't take Karl Rove to write Lennie's campaign ad based on his verbal and written assault on Mr. Bereano. He'll pontificate about how he'll fight the lobbyists. He'll make assurances that he won't get involved in morality issues, and he'll promise to continue to wage war against tax-funded services for illegal immigrants. Don't think for a second this isn't a winning message, it feels like it might be the perfect mix of messages for the masses.


If you don't believe me, just remember the last three commissioner campaigns. There were dozens of slogans, representing the dozens of candidates. Only one slogan still rings in most people's heads. "If the developers win, You lose!"


Don't bet against him! People love a fighter, even if the accomplishments come up a little lacking. After all, it's the fight that counts. We have our white-suited chief grenade lobber standing by, ready to go.


Bombs away!



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