Federal prosecutors opened their case against state Sen. Ulysses S. Currie on Tuesday by casting him as a greedy lawmaker who strong-armed state agency officials to benefit Shoppers Food Warehouse Corp., which paid him a “consulting” fee of nearly $250,000 over the course of five years.
But Currie’s defense counsel said the senator’s work on behalf of the supermarket was lawful and benign, consisting mainly of meeting with agency leaders to discuss issues of concern to the retailer.
Those matters included a desire for traffic lights near its stores in Owings Mills and Laurel and getting the state’s help in keeping rents down at Baltimore’s Mondawmin Mall.
Currie, D-Prince George’s, is standing trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on charges of bribery, conspiracy, extortion and making a false statement to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He faces a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison if convicted of all charges.
“This is a case about a politician who took bribes,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen O. Gavin told the jury in her opening statement. “This is a case about a politician who sold his office for almost a quarter of a million dollars.”
But Currie’s attorney Lucius T. Outlaw III said the lawmaker engaged in, at worst, a “conflict of interest” in meeting with state agencies on behalf of a private company. Such meetings are not illegal, said Outlaw, an assistant federal public defender.
He added that Currie’s relationship with Shoppers was well known in Annapolis.
“It will become crystal clear that Senator Currie is not only innocent but shares nothing in common with elected officials who have fallen from grace,” Outlaw told the jury Tuesday morning. “It was all out in the open. This was not a secret.”
On Tuesday afternoon, the prosecution called its first witness at what presiding Judge Richard D. Bennett said could be a six-week trial.
Ed Mitchell, a former executive at Shoppers’ parent company, testified about the December 2002 proposal that formed the basis for Currie’s consulting contract with Shoppers. The written proposal, as presented in court Tuesday, consisted of marketing, community relations and outreach to minorities.
“I was satisfied that the relationship would be … limited to those matters not involving governmental affairs,” said Mitchell, who was vice president of employee relations at Minneapolis-based SuperValu Inc. from 2001 to 2007. “I wanted to make sure there was no appearance of impropriety in retaining Senator Currie.”
Mitchell said he viewed the proposal as excluding meetings with state agency officials on the company’s behalf.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Joshua R. Treem, of Schulman, Treem & Gilden PA in Baltimore, asked Mitchell whether he knew Maryland lawmakers were permitted to hold full-time jobs and meet with state agencies as private citizens. Treem represents William J. White, one of the executives accused of bribing Currie.
Mitchell responded that he had not researched Maryland law in reviewing Currie’s proposal.
Gavin, the prosecutor, told the jury in her opening that the contract was a “sham.” She said the true goal of the relationship was for Currie to use his influence as chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee to extract favorable actions from state agencies on behalf of Shoppers.
Between December 2002 and March 2008, Gavin said, Currie “summoned” to his office the leaders of at least seven state and regional agencies, including the Maryland Department of Transportation, the Department of Business and Economic Development, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.
Currie, as chairman of the committee that oversees agency budgets, held more sway over agency leaders than any private citizen could wield, Gavin added.
“He was using his office,” Gavin told the jury. “He was calling on the power of his position as chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.”
Prosecutors allege that Currie took $245,816 in exchange for using his influence to keep Shoppers’ rent payments low at Mondawmin Mall; introducing and voting for legislation to help Shoppers get a beer and wine license for a store in College Park; and assisting Shoppers’ outlets in getting traffic lights from the state highway authority, according to his Sept. 1, 2010, indictment.
But if Shoppers sought Currie’s influence, Outlaw said, the company did not get what it paid for.
Any reduction in rent at the Mondawmin store was the landlord’s decision, not the state’s, Outlaw said. He added that Shoppers was denied a traffic light at its Owings Mills retail outlet, but granted one in Laurel.
“In return for their money, [Shoppers] didn’t get a dime from the state of Maryland,” Outlaw said.
Currie is standing trial with former Shoppers’ executives White and R. Kevin Small, who are accused of having bribed the lawmaker.
Attorneys for White and Small said in opening arguments that their clients were focused on running the supermarket chain, not facilitating allegedly improper payments to Currie.
“Bill White knew how to run grocery stores,” said Nicholas J. Vitek, co-counsel for White, who was Shoppers president. “That was his value. That was his skill.”
Vitek is a Baltimore solo practitioner.
Small’s attorney, Jonathan S. Zucker, said his client’s expertise was in building and remodeling supermarkets.
Small, who was vice president of construction for Shoppers, “never paid a bribe,” added Zucker, a Washington, D.C., solo practitioner. “He never asked Ulysses Currie to commit a crime.”
Also on the first day, Bennett excused a juror after he said he recognized Small. The juror was replaced by one of the four alternates.
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 held since 2002.
Currie served in the House of Delegates from 1987 to 1995, the year he joined the Senate.