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C. Fraser Smith: The culture of Annapolis on trial

We are told now and then that a “culture of corruption” exists in Annapolis.

It’s not true.

But there are aspects of life in the lawmaking arena which can be toxic to the process of lawmaking. Legislators and lobbyists have — on occasion — succumbed to the blandishments of an environment rife with temptation.

The immediate case in point: state Sen. Ulysses S. Currie and his trial on political corruption. The senator stands accused of accepting bribes – more than a quarter of a million dollars – from Shoppers Food Warehouse, a business in search of government favors.

Had he declared this financial relationship as required by law — had he been confused about whether his work for Shoppers was permissible — the ethics police would have blown the whistle. His failure to report it leads some to conclude that Currie knew full well what the authorities would do. His defense team says he was just not good at paperwork.

The senator’s lawyer says he will argue that his client may be guilty of an “ethical lapse” — failing to disclose a financial relationship — but not of a crime.

Life in Annapolis, the lawyer suggests, creates an atmosphere in which a usually clear-eyed human being can’t tell the difference between an illegal act and an oversight — between a bribe and a lapse. What a commentary.

Helping the temporarily blind

This assertion suggests that the complexity of government overwhelms the citizen-legislator ideal. We are asked to believe public servants are incapable of separating their public and private employment.

The clear-eyed human being may indeed lose his or her bearing amid big-money lawmaking. Surely temptations arise. But the General Assembly has acted in various ways to guard against those who are subject to self-delusion. Disclosure requirements were imposed to help the temporarily blind navigate treacherous waters and to say the culture is not corrupt.

The problem for defendant Currie is that judges and juries have shown themselves fully capable of making the proper distinctions. They’re not caught up in the pleasant life of personal relationships between lobbyists who can make upwards of a million dollars a year and legislators who need campaign dollars to secure re-election and who vote for or against the lobbyists’ clients.

A few years ago, U.S. District Court Judge J. Frederick Motz concluded the trial of an Annapolis lobbyist by asserting that Annapolis had indeed fallen into a culture of corruption. The lobbyist in the case before Judge Motz was accused of manufacturing a fee-generating situation — a bill that a lobbyist would be needed to defeat.

It was not the first time this sort of assertion had been lodged against a member of the lobbying corps. Several of them have found themselves in the dock over the last decade or so for engaging in similar exercises. For the record, most of these men and women rely on arguments to make their case.

Blood brothers

In criminal justice interludes — aka corruption trials — lobbyists and lawmakers become blood brothers, willing to take the stand in defense of their compatriots. They are, to some extent, dependent on the Annapolis atmosphere. They seem eager to suggest that the rest of us just don’t get it.

Here is where the citizen can see palpable representations of the culture so disturbing to Judge Motz. The whole Annapolis cabal will relocate now to a Baltimore courthouse. They are almost certain to say Uly Currie is a decent, smart guy who would never do what’s been charged.

There’s no disputing the decent part of this description. But Currie’s own words could be a problem for him.

Prosecutors say he wrote to the then-president of Shoppers, offering assistance with the company’s various interests. He then intervened, prosecutors say, with various state officials seeking favors.

Prosecutors say Currie reported his efforts in a document titled “Accomplishments on Behalf of Shoppers.” The senator had asked for a $5,000 monthly retainer. Shoppers countered with $3,000.

The company has agreed to pay a $2.5 million fine and cooperate with prosecutors in lieu of facing charges.

Currie and his lawyers and the senator’s friends in Annapolis will have to convince a jury that what he did for Shoppers was nothing more than honest work undertaken for a private employer.

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