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Defense gets its turn in Sen. Currie’s trial

State Sen. Ulysses S. Currie never disclosed to the Maryland General Assembly’s ethics committee that he was working as a consultant for Shoppers Food Warehouse Corp., the legislature’s chief ethics adviser said Monday at the senator’s trial on charges he illegally used his office as senator to assist the supermarket chain in return for more than $245,000.

William G. Somerville, the committee’s general counsel since 1998, reviewed 13 years worth of his own notes and recalled the senator mentioning a potential job with Shoppers only once, in April 2003.

Somerville said he presumed Currie was merely “contemplating” a job with Shoppers and seeking his advice, though the senator was already in the company’s employ, according to court papers.

Had Currie said he was working for Shoppers, Somerville added he “certainly” would have advised the senator to file a disclosure form with the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, composed of six senators and six delegates.

Somerville was one of several witnesses the defense called Monday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, after the prosecution closed its case and Judge Richard Bennett denied motions for Currie’s acquittal.

Currie, a Prince George’s County Democrat, faces a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison if convicted of all charges, including bribery, conspiracy, extortion and making a false statement to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Federal prosecutors allege that between December 2002 and March 2008, Currie used his office as senator and chairman of the influential Senate Budget and Taxation Committee to assist Shoppers in return for payments totaling $245,816.

The prosecution, in presenting its case to the jury over the past three weeks, tried to cast Currie as having deliberately hidden his relationship with Shoppers as he met with leaders of state highway agencies, whose proposed budgets must pass through Currie’s committee.

The defense has countered that Currie did not abuse his Senate influence but met with the agency leaders as a private citizen employed by Shoppers as a consultant. The Maryland legislature, which generally meets only 90 days per year, consists of citizen-legislators who are permitted to hold private employment, the defense has said.

People skills

The first defense witness, former Del. Timothy Maloney, testified that Currie has great people skills but “is just not very astute when it comes to mechanics of legislating.”

Maloney, a partner with Joseph, Greenwald & Laake P.A. in Greenbelt, served in the legislature with Currie and described him as a friend and a client. He testified that “on the smart end [Currie] is way at the bottom; on the nice end he is right at the top.”

He testified that he helped Currie draft a letter to Shoppers which stated Currie would not appear before the state legislature or local elected bodies on behalf of the company.

On cross-examination, prosecutor Leo Wise questioned Maloney on how he could say Currie was not smart if he had a graduate degree in education and rose to leadership positions in the General Assembly.

“No one would call him smart,” Maloney said. He testified that it pained him to speak so bluntly about a friend, adding that what Currie “did do well is bring people together.”

In opening arguments last month, the defense said it would present testimony showing that Currie’s dealings on Shoppers’ behalf were above board and that he had consulted with the General Assembly’s ethics adviser on the propriety of working for the supermarket.

On Monday, defense attorney Joseph L. Evans asked Somerville to address the extent of Currie’s consultation with him regarding the ethics of working for Shoppers while serving in the Senate.

But Somerville said he could recall just one brief instance, which he recorded in a note he wrote to himself that day, April 14, 2003. The note, shown in open court, indicated he had returned a telephone call from Currie regarding “Shopless.”

The note made no reference to any advice Somerville gave Currie, an absence Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen O. Gavin seized on in cross-examination.

Under Gavin’s questioning, Somerville said he certainly would have advised Currie to disclose the relationship with Shoppers if the senator had told him he was working for the supermarket. Somerville added he would have recorded the advice on the note.

Gavin also asked Somerville if, as their chief ethics adviser, he urges legislators to comply with the ethics rules and to contact him whenever they take a job with a company that has business before the legislature or state agencies.

“I hope that I convey that message,” Somerville said.

Currie is standing trial with former Shoppers’ President William J. White and R. Kevin Small, the company’s former vice president of construction. The men are accused of having bribed the lawmaker.

The trial is expected to last about three more weeks.

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 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.