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General Assembly’s ethics panel to consider sanctions on Currie

ANNAPOLIS — State Sen. Ulysses Currie has walked out of federal court a free man, but he could still face sanctions by an ethics panel of fellow lawmakers for failing to disclose work he did for a grocery store chain that paid him more than $245,000 between 2003 and 2008.

State Sen. Ulysses Currie

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Calvert, said Wednesday that the General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics will hold a hearing on whether Currie, D-Prince George’s, should be sanctioned. The committee has six members from the House of Delegates and six from the Senate.

“It’s kind of tough because it’s House members as well as Senate members sitting in judgment of a member of the Senate, and we’ll see what they recommend,” Miller said.

Charges could be drafted by an assistant attorney general or outside counsel. Currie will have a chance to testify before the panel with a lawyer present.

“The person charged has got to be made aware of what the allegations are against them, and they’ve got to have an opportunity to hire counsel and things of that nature, and the ethics committee’s staff has got to prepare the charges, so I would imagine it would be probably conducted during the first weeks in January,” Miller said.

The ethics hearing is not open to the public, although the lawmaker who is the subject of the complaint could waive confidentiality. The committee could waive confidentiality on a three-fourths vote if disclosure of information is needed to uphold the integrity of the investigation.

If the panel decides to recommend sanctions, they will become public once they are forwarded to the Senate for a vote. The General Assembly’s 90-day session is scheduled to begin Jan. 11.

If no violation is found or if the acts don’t warrant discipline, the proceedings will remain confidential, said William Somerville, the General Assembly’s ethics counsel.

The committee has not recommended sanctions against a lawmaker since the expulsion of Baltimore Sen. Larry Young in 1998 for allegedly using his office to secure business from health care firms for his private corporations. In that case, the committee issued a report by opening day of the 1998 General Assembly. Young ended up being expelled on a 36-10 vote. It was the first time in two centuries that Maryland lawmakers expelled one of their own.

Miller, who noted that the presiding officers of the General Assembly distance themselves from the committee’s work, said Currie could possibly face expulsion.

“That’s a possibility,” Miller said. “I mean, the other possibility is that, you know, he went through a trial by fire. The whole might of the federal government came down on him and 12 people decided he was not guilty, and so we’ll have to see what happens.”

Common Cause Maryland, a government watchdog group, called on the Maryland Senate to take swift action to censure Currie based on evidence presented at the trial.

“Maryland citizens should expect high ethical standards from their elected officials, and the Senate needs to hold its members accountable when they fail to meet those standards,” Common Cause director Susan Wichmann said in a statement Wednesday.

Miller declined Wednesday to say what action the committee should take.

“I’m not going to prejudge the committee — the ethics committee — and what they recommend,” Miller said.

That Currie failed to disclose he was working for Shoppers Food Warehouse as required in state financial disclosure forms is not in dispute. During his trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, his attorneys explained that Currie was a sloppy bookkeeper throughout his 25-year political career in Annapolis. Currie’s wife testified that she filled out the forms, although an FBI agent testified that Currie told him he signed off on them after she completed them.

Robert Hahn, who retired last month as executive director of the State Ethics Commission, testified during the trial about Currie’s numerous late filings dating back to 1986, when he was a member of the House of Delegates. The commission sent Currie complaints about his failure to file forms and fined him $350 in 1995.

Currie, who was charged with conspiracy, bribery, extortion and making false statements in the alleged scheme with Shoppers, was acquitted of all charges on Tuesday in a trial that lasted about a month and a half.