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SHA head testifies in Currie case

State Sen. Ulysses Currie never disclosed he was being paid by a grocery store chain as he pressed the head of the Maryland State Highway Administration to install traffic lights near the company’s stores, the highway chief testified during the lawmaker’s bribery trial on Wednesday.

Neil Pedersen is retiring from the SHA on Friday after nearly nine years as the agency’s chief. He succinctly replied, “He did not,” when asked by a federal prosecutor whether Currie ever disclosed that he was on the payroll of Shoppers Food Warehouse as a consultant.

Pedersen also testified about Currie’s persistence in getting traffic lights installed at two grocery stores in 2004 and 2005, one in Baltimore County and another in Anne Arundel County.

“Senator Currie asks me every time he sees me whether we have resolved the Reisterstown Road Shoppers Food Warehouse issue,” Pedersen wrote to a colleague about the Baltimore County location. “How close are we to resolving it?”

Pedersen also was asked by federal prosecutors about an email he sent, expressing his anxiety about tending to the senator, who was chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, which steers state spending.

“It is very critical that we do all that we can to expedite this as much as possible,” Pedersen wrote, after explaining that the agency’s budget was before Currie’s committee, as well as “several critical pieces of legislation.”

Emails exchanged between Pedersen and SHA staff illustrate Currie’s persistence in getting the projects done. Currie, a Prince George’s County Democrat, pressed hard in 2004 to have a traffic light installed at a Baltimore County Shoppers Food Warehouse, even though two requests had been denied.

The light was never approved, but a change was made at the intersection to allow left turns. That brought a thank you note from R. Kevin Small. The former vice president for real estate development for Shoppers is on trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore alongside Currie for being part of a conspiracy, along with former Shoppers President William J. White. Small thanked Pedersen in a June 2004 letter for “incremental improvements to the intersection,” even though the traffic light did not receive approval.

A light at a store in Laurel was installed.

Currie, 74, was paid more than $245,000 by Shoppers between 2003 and 2007. Prosecutors say the payments were bribes, but Currie’s lawyers say he only worked as a consultant and did nothing illegal. Currie also never reported the income as required on state financial disclosure reforms, but he paid taxes on the income.

Prosecutors also say Currie helped the grocery store chain transfer a liquor license from one store to another, despite local residents’ disapproval of the switch. They also say Currie worked to lower rent paid by the chain for its stores and to get state money to pay for improvements to a roundabout near a store. Prosecutors also contend Currie tried to get a Motor Vehicle Administration office moved to make way for a grocery store, but the MVA was not moved.

Prosecutors outlined bribery, conspiracy, extortion and false statement charges against Currie in opening statements in the trial on Tuesday, while the senator’s lawyers said he only was trying to help company officials navigate state government bureaucracy.

The trial, which is scheduled to resume on Monday, is expected to last six weeks.