At Maryland State House, Lobbyists Get to Bypass Security

A new security system in Annapolis means that visitors should expect longer lines outside the State House and other government buildings when the General Assembly session begins this month.

But most Annapolis lobbyists won't be waiting in them.

The professional State House lobbying corps, which boasts 14 members who earned more than $500,000 in 2004, has managed to preserve its rapid access to the historic capitol complex, overturning an earlier decision that would have made them stand outside and pass through metal detectors like day visitors.

The Maryland Department of General Services, which provides security at state buildings, had first determined that lobbyists should not receive the same entry privileges as the governor, the first lady, lawmakers, legislative services workers and members of the news media.

But some of the most powerful players in Annapolis, including former legislators who now work as lobbyists, refused to accept a decision handed down in November.

"I went ballistic. A couple of other people went ballistic," said lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano. "We brought pressure to bear and turned it around."

A few weeks after the fall ruling, state officials changed the regulation and decided that registered lobbyists can bypass the police and security equipment at the entrance to government buildings. The privilege will go only to those who are registered with the Maryland State Ethics Commission, undergo a background check and pay a $50 fee for their badges.

Among those fighting to maintain rapid access was Barbara A. Hoffman, the former chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee who became a lobbyist after a 2002 election defeat.

Hoffman said she convinced the Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller that lobbyists who are former lawmakers should have speedy entry. General Services officials decided that, rather than treating some differently, all paid lobbyists would receive the same security-passing ability, she said.

"Someone who is there every day for 90 days is not a danger," she said. "I'm a known quantity. What they were saying was you could be a columnist for Al-Jazeera, and you don't have to go through a metal detector. But I do?"

The new rules aren't sitting well with some of those left behind.

Clare Whitbeck, 65, travels regularly from her St. Mary's County home to meet with lawmakers as a volunteer advocate for Voices for Quality Care, a statewide group that works on nursing home issues. When she renewed her identification badge this winter, she was told of the new rules. Where previously she bypassed security, her new pass would allow her only to cut to the front of the line, after which she would have to go through the metal detector and have her bag checked.

"I don't understand why the governor wants to limit the access of citizens to their legislators," Whitbeck said, adding that she fears only lobbyists hired by special interests will get into the buildings quickly enough to reach lawmakers at the beginning of the day, before the start of floor sessions or committee meetings.

She said it is impractical for her to register as a professional lobbyist because of the paperwork, complex filing requirements and dense regulations.

Does she consider herself a threat? "Not that I know of," Whitbeck said. "But if they keep harassing me like this, I might want to become one."

General Services officials first announced new security procedures a year ago, but delayed the implementation after complaints. The lobbyists continued to negotiate with officials for much of the year, and a final decision appeared to come in November.

"The new card, part of Governor Ehrlich's homeland security initiatives, replaces pre-9/11 state-issued identification cards that were in circulation," said Dave Humphrey, a General Services spokesman in an e-mail response to questions. "To date, more than 43,000 cards have been distributed. Of that number, approximately 2,500 have magnetometer bypass privileges. Based on our risk assessment, we concluded that we need to limit the number of people who bypass the magnetometers and X-ray equipment."

Sean Looney, who represents Comcast in Annapolis and is head of the Maryland Government Relations Association, a trade group for lobbyists, distributed an e-mail with the bad news that his members would have to pass through metal detectors. Some top Annapolis lobbyists refused to accept that they were not part of the select group after Looney's e-mail message went out.

"They were going to let the county lobbyists and the state lobbyists go around," Bereano said. "We had to establish that we were going to be treated fairly and equally, and that we are as legitimate a participant in the Annapolis process as anybody else."

Hoffman said Ehrlich's staff was reluctant to grant access because "the governor didn't want to look like he was doing too much for lobbyists."

Lobbyists have a mixed reputation in Annapolis, and several top lobbyists have had tangles with the law. Bereano was convicted in 1994 of overbilling clients to get money for campaign contributions, and his behavior is often pointed to as the impetus for current restrictions on campaign contributions, meals and gifts. Another lobbyist fighting to keep privileges was Gerard E. Evans, who was convicted in 2000 in a scheme to introduce legislation that had no purpose other than to generate fees. Bereano and Evans have bounced back, returning to their positions as top earners in the capital.

Bereano said he dealt directly with General Services Secretary Boyd K. Rutherford, while Hoffman and others enlisted Miller to help, and former House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., now a lobbyist, worked on House Speaker Michael E. Busch. The effort succeeded.

Humphrey said there's no reason not to let lobbyists in. "We believe that with sufficient safeguards - registration with two state government agencies and a police background check - the security risk associated with government relations professionals will be significantly reduced," he said.