Federal prosecutors said Tuesday a prominent state senator sold his office for more than $245,000 to help a grocery store chain over several years, but the senator’s lawyers say he arranged meetings to help store officials navigate the bureaucracy of Maryland state government — not to do anything illegal.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Gavin said in opening arguments in the case against Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George’s County Democrat, that Currie was paid by Shoppers Food Warehouse to use his power as chairman of a powerful Senate committee in an effort to reduce rent for the chain at a Baltimore shopping mall, transfer a liquor license from one store to another and put traffic lights near stores.
Gavin outlined conspiracy, bribery, extortion and false statement charges against the senator, who stepped down as chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee when he was indicted last year but remains a state senator. She said Currie summoned state transportation officials to his office in Annapolis to meet with grocery store executives to discuss the chain’s needs and how to achieve them.
“This is a case about a politician who took bribes,” Gavin said.
Gavin also said Currie even compiled a list of “accomplishments on behalf of Shoppers” in order to justify larger payments, which rose from $3,800 a month to $7,600 a month.
“That’s what Senator Currie got for using his office,” Gavin said.
But Lucius Outlaw, an attorney for Currie, underscored to the jury that there is a big difference between a conflict of interest and bribery. Outlaw stressed that Maryland has a part-time legislature, in which lawmakers are encouraged to have outside employment. Outlaw also said Currie only worked as a consultant.
Outlaw also noted that Currie told William Somerville, ethics counsel to the Maryland General Assembly, that he was going to work for the grocery store chain. Other people in Currie’s office also knew of the arrangement, and Outlaw said the knowledge by others of the consulting did not constitute a conspiracy.
“Does that make any sense?” Outlaw said, when pointing out that others would know of the alleged conspiracy. “The evidence will show absolutely not.”
Currie also failed to note in state financial disclosure forms that he was receiving income from the grocery store chain, what Gavin said was an intentional omission to conceal the scheme from 2002 until 2008. But Outlaw said Currie, who has been a senator since 1995 and was a delegate from 1987 until he won his Senate seat, often had inaccurate disclosure forms throughout his career.
“Ladies and gentlemen, frankly, they’re a mess,” Outlaw said.
Former Shoppers Food Warehouse executives, including former President William J. White and former vice president for real estate development R. Kevin Small, also are on trial in the case in Baltimore’s U.S. District Court in connection with the alleged scheme.
Nicholas Vitek, White’s lawyer, said the consulting work by Currie was known by others.
“This was all out in the open,” Vitek said.
Jonathan Zucker, an attorney for Small, said Currie was hired only for his understanding of Maryland government. He said the prosecution’s argument that executives conspired to bribe the senator are “complete nonsense” because other company executives knew all along what was happening. Zucker also noted that Currie was paid in monthly checks and reported the income on his taxes.
“This is not the way bribery is done,” he said.
The trial before U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett is expected to last as long as six weeks. Former and current state officials are expected to appear in the courtroom