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Witnesses defend former Shoppers execs in Currie trial

Witnesses for two Shoppers Food Warehouse Corp. executives on Thursday called the pair honest, hard-working men whose contacts with state Sen. Ulysses S. Currie were above-board and fully documented in a valid consulting agreement.

But federal prosecutors, through cross-examination, got the witnesses to concede they lacked full knowledge of the working relationship among Currie, D-Prince George’s, former Shoppers President William J. White, and R. Kevin Small, Shoppers’ former vice president of real estate development.

The two former executives are standing trial with Currie for bribery in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

The government says they sought to buy Currie’s influence as chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee on behalf of Shoppers, which paid the senator $245,816 between December 2002 and May 2008.

SuperValu Inc., the Minnesota-based parent company of Shoppers, agreed in September 2010 to pay a $2.5 million fine and cooperate in the prosecution of White, Small and Currie.

Even so, Shoppers’ vice president of human resources and SuperValu’s vice president of facilities took the stand as defense witnesses on Thursday.

Human Resources Vice President Julie McWilliams told the court she had seen the consulting contract between White and Currie and had it reviewed in 2002 and 2003 by legal counsel at SuperValu.

McWilliams said she also kept a file on Currie, as she did on all Shoppers’ consultants, contractors and employees.

“This was all being done by the book?” asked White’s attorney, Joshua R. Treem of Schulman, Treem & Gilden PA in Baltimore.

“Yes,” McWilliams responded.

She acknowledged, under Treem’s questioning, that she regards White as a friend and mentor who promoted her to the vice presidency.

White is a “very straightforward” leader who “cared about the organization [and] always wants to do what was right,” McWilliams said.

She testified that Small had no knowledge of the company’s contract with Currie until June 2003, when she sent Small an e-mail — at White’s direction — instructing him to contact the senator to get his help in winning state approval for a traffic light near a store outlet.

McWilliams said she believed Currie was to advise Small, whom she also called a friend, on which state officials to meet with to secure approval.

On cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen O. Gavin grilled McWilliams on the absence of any documentation in Currie’s file detailing the work he had done to earn his retainer, which prosecutors said rose from $3,000 per month in 2003 to $7,600 in 2008.

For example, no documents mentioned Currie’s help with traffic lights or obtaining a beer and wine license for the College Park store, Gavin said.

“You don’t know what he was doing,” Gavin told McWilliams, prompting a bench conference between both sides’ lawyers and presiding Judge Richard D. Bennett.

When questioning resumed, McWilliams conceded Currie’s file contained no such documentation.

John Domino, SuperValu’s vice president of facilities and Small’s supervisor, testified that Shoppers’ business relationship with Currie was not a secret.

For example, Domino said, he regularly praised Small on his annual performance reviews for his ability to work with local government leaders, including Currie. Small is represented by Jonathan S. Zucker, a Washington, D.C., solo practitioner.

On cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo J. Wise asked Domino if he was “specifically aware” of the consulting work Currie performed for Shoppers.

Domino responded he was unaware of any work Currie did beyond helping Shoppers’ executives set up meetings with state and local officials.

Two more weeks

Currie is accused of having illegally used his influence as chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee in an effort to get Shoppers rent-payment subsidies for its Mondawmin Mall store in Baltimore; to gain state approval for traffic lights and highway rights of way at two other outlets; and to gain passage of legislation enabling Shoppers to get a beer and wine license for a store in College Park.

All three men face charges of bribery, conspiracy and extortion, which carry a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison. Currie and White have also been charged with making false statements to FBI agents, which carries an additional maximum sentence of five years in prison.

The jury trial, which completed its fourth week Thursday, is expected to last another two weeks.

Despite the cloud of a federal indictment, Currie won re-election to his fifth term in the Senate last fall. However, he stepped down as chairman of the Senate 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.