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Commentary: The trials of Ulysses

State Sen. Ulysses Currie’s indictment is a crashing embarrassment for the political community of Annapolis.

His fall from a top policymaking rung of the state Senate — and the clueless, venal escapade that apparently brought it on — offers a teachable moment for the citizens of Maryland and for those who would serve them as lawmakers.

A few of the important lessons:

  • When judges, followed by reporters, refer to a “culture of corruption” in Annapolis they are referring to improper behavior which has gotten into the water supply.
  • What may seem like onerous reporting requirements to the ethics police are important and effective.
  • Beyond the reports themselves is the powerful investigative arm of government, which can be attracted by any number of irregularities. The connivers or the simply careless will be caught. Several lobbyists and legislators, recently ensnared by this system, could so testify.

In the case of Senator Currie, federal prosecutors allege he was paid $245,816 by Shoppers Food Warehouse Corp., a supermarket chain in Currie’s Prince George’s County district.

Currie is, of course, innocent until proven guilty. But the case against him would appear to be a strong one.

Federal authorities secured an indictment on the charge of bribery after the company said it had conspired to bribe the senator and agreed to pay a $2.5 million fine.

The case has immediate political significance. Currie and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. announced he will step down from his chairmanship of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. With an election under way (Currie is unopposed) and an electorate fed up with political leaders, the image of a top lawmaker in the pocket of a corporation may confirm the voters’ worst assumptions.

Under the bus

Legislators engaged in similar relationships shouldn’t miss this: You are of value until the deal goes bad. Shoppers Food, having thrown its alleged co-conspirator under the bus, issued a statement professing a desire to “focus on our current business initiatives.”

That may not be easily done, however, since two of the company’s former executives were also indicted and may keep Shoppers’ name in the news. Look for them under the bus with Currie.

Now we know in detail what “powerful” can mean when attached to the name of a committee chairman. It was Currie’s job and the job of his committee to tax the citizens and spend their money for the public welfare. Done well and honestly, budgeting and taxing stands near the heart of governing. It demands as much or more integrity than any other duty in government.

As if to provide investigators with a roadmap of his activities, Currie is alleged to have given the company a document entitled “Accomplishments on Behalf of Shoppers.”

He listed 12 bits of assistance, including help with efforts to win financial aid from the state and help with state road work near stores in Prince George’s County and Baltimore city. Referring to his committee chairmanship, he told his employer he was “in a unique position” to help.

If proven, this is called influence peddling. It’s called corruption. It’s called brazen.

No middleman needed

One of the earliest reports of Currie’s difficulties suggested he had simply failed to fully report his income on the ethics disclosures required of all legislators.

Disclosure via these forms is meant to offer the citizen a look at a legislator’s private employment and compensation so that a judgment can be made about possible conflicts of interest when he votes. Currie did not bother to meet this requirement, suggesting a willful flouting of the rules — or an even more deeply seated culture of corruption, one in which the players openly flout the rules and fear no consequence.

News that the affable and soft-spoken Currie was under investigation surprised many. Usually, it is assumed, the activities he is charged with are laid at the feet of more-flamboyant types or lobbyists with access to legislators. Of course, if the legislator himself is on the payroll, one may skip the middleman.

Currie’s attorney says he will be found not guilty of charges that should be seen as legitimate efforts on behalf of a constituent — run-of-the-mill, garden-variety interventions that occur every day.

One can only hope this is not true.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is fsmith@wypr.org.