The federal law that bars legislators from exploiting their “official duties” for financial gain is unconstitutionally vague with regard to Maryland’s part-time lawmakers, who meet only 90 days per year, a lawyer for state Sen. Ulysses S. Currie argued on Monday.
Currie’s lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Joseph L. Evans, was in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to argue that all charges against his client should be dismissed.
Prosecutors have charged Currie, D-Prince George’s, with accepting more than $245,000 from Shoppers Food Warehouse & Pharmacy in return for using his legislative office to benefit the retailer.
Judge Richard D. Bennett said he would rule on the motion to dismiss within 10 days.
Bennett heard and decided several other motions earlier in the day, including a discovery dispute he resolved in the defense’s favor, and a motion to sever some of the charges, which he denied.
If the charges are not dismissed, Currie is scheduled to stand trial beginning Sept. 26 with co-defendants William J. White and R. Kevin Small, former Shoppers’ executives.
Evans argued that many Maryland legislators, like Currie, have full-time consulting jobs that require them to have professional contact with state policymakers on behalf of paying private clients.
What one person, such as Currie, might regard as a valid meeting on behalf of a client, another — such as a federal prosecutor — might deem undue influence by a legislator, Evans said.
Such “ambiguity” cannot form the basis of a criminal prosecution because the underlying law is “void for vagueness,” he argued.
“How are they supposed to know what’s official and what’s not?” Evans said, referring to jurors and lawmakers. “We don’t have a rule book that says this is what he can or can’t do.”
However, the judge said the issue appears to be a question of fact that a jury can determine at trial.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo J. Wise, picking up on Bennett’s comment, said jurors can rely on the “custom and usage” of the term “official duties” to determine whether Currie was acting as a private citizen or as a legislator.
Wise said jurors would be told at trial that Currie, then-chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, met with state officials on Shoppers’ behalf and also introduced legislation in support of the company.
Currie’s actions were “well within the heartland of what a legislator does,” not a private citizen, Wise added.
“No private consultant can pick up the phone and say this is the chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee,” Wise said. “All of the people he interacted with believed they were interacting with the chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.”
Evans, however, said the senator never exploited his legislative position while consulting for Shoppers.
Currie was indicted Sept. 1 on charges of bribery, conspiracy, mail fraud, extortion and making false statements to investigators. Federal prosecutors in May dropped all charges except for bribery, conspiracy and lying to investigators.
Between December 2002 and March 2008, the prosecution says, Currie used his position to assist Shoppers in return for payments totaling $245,816.
His actions included helping to secure the state’s assistance in Shoppers’ rent payments for its Mondawmin Mall store in Baltimore; introducing and voting for legislation to help Shoppers get a beer and wine license; and assisting Shoppers’ outlets in getting rights of way from the state highway authority, according to the indictment.
Access to documents
Currie won re-election to his fifth term in the Senate last fall, despite the cloud of a federal indictment. However, he stepped down as chairman of the influential Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, a position he had held since 2002.
In September, Bennett approved a deal under which SuperValu Inc., the Minnesota-based parent company of Shoppers, agreed to pay a $2.5 million fine and cooperate in the prosecution of Currie, White and Smalls.
Under that agreement, Shoppers has supplied documents to the prosecution.
On Monday, Bennett said Shoppers must also provide some 2.9 million documents to the defense by Aug. 31.
Bennett’s order came over objections from Shoppers’ lawyer that such a “fishing expedition” by the defense would cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Bennett rejected that argument, saying access to the company documents is a matter of fundamental fairness to Currie and his two co-defendants.
“The defendants are entitled to look through documents and decide” what is needed for their defense, Bennett told Shoppers’ lawyer, William C. Brennan Jr., of Brennan, Sullivan & McKenna LLP. “Your client might have to spend a lot of money.”