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C. Fraser Smith: Uly Currie and the rope-a-dope defense

In the embarrassment that is state Sen. Ulysses Currie’s corruption trial, there’s a crashing irony.

His lawyers are mounting the “I’m an idiot” defense. The world at large may hope this is just a wink and a nod, an obvious ploy — that Mr. Currie can’t have been as low-powered a lawmaker as his friends now contend.

Here’s the irony: The profile laid out in court is largely accurate. It’s overdrawn for courtroom purposes, perhaps, but essentially true.

If you had all 47 state senators in a room and you had to choose one to chair the committee on budget and taxation, Uly Currie would not be a contender — not even close. (This could be said, of course, about many of the 47.)

What’s happening in conjunction with the “I’m an idiot” defense is a high-profile circling of the wagons, no matter how embarrassing. Many of his defenders believe that he is just a kind of hapless, nice guy thrust into a position he wasn’t equipped to handle.

The first character witness told the court: “On the smart scale, he’s right at the bottom.”

That came from one of Currie’s political friends and his occasional lawyer, Timothy F. Maloney of Prince George’s County.

A criminal mind?

Exhibit A of many exhibits: Currie didn’t file an ethics report. That bit of evidence might help the “I’m an idiot” defense.

Some years ago, senators and delegates imposed a reporting requirement on themselves. They wanted to head off the conclusion that they are, on the whole, inattentive to ethical considerations: things like conflicts of interest and taking money from businesses in search of favors.

When legislators file their reports, the ethics police take a look. If there’s a financial relationship that’s over the line, they blow the whistle.

That way, maybe you don’t delude yourself into conflicts of interest. On the other hand, sometimes the person to watch out for is the one who does file promptly and games the system with more guile.

There are those who think the federal charges against Sen. Currie really are a little silly, given how clumsy it all was. Were we really dealing with a criminal mind here?

If a jury doesn’t know or isn’t sympathetic to the way Annapolis sometimes works, it may expect someone like Currie to be smart. But maybe jurors think legislators are a lot like the rest of us — in positions of authority on merit alone or sometimes for other reasons.

Smart isn‘t always the most important leadership criteria — nor should it be.

Going along, getting along

You will be shocked to hear that much of this story is rooted in politics.

Currie hails from predominantly black Prince George’s County. He’s an African-American. He moved up the seniority rank as a team player, going along and getting along. It was his turn to serve on an important committee. He had paid his dues.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who chooses committee chairmen, was not about to pass him over. Miller, too, is from Prince George’s, and he senses political pressure as keenly as anyone.

Currie rose to power as a soldier whose time had come. He was someone whose analytical or legislative shortcomings could be managed.

Sen. Miller may well have relished the prospect of a less powerful chairman of the big-money committee. After all, he’d had to deal with really powerful people before.

Now, with all these questions, the press can step up for its share of the blame. We automatically referred to Currie — and others in his position — as “powerful.”

The description is a kind of historic newspaper trope — along with terms like “well-connected” — used to fit every committee chairman whether he or she wields power. Influence seekers beware.

I assure you that reporters wondered if Currie was up to the job. You can always tell who has the horsepower and who probably does not. I don’t recall anyone ever questioning Currie’s qualifications. It probably wouldn’t have mattered, but it’s our job.

So, you could say there’s enough culpability here to go around.

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