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Common Cause urges open ethics deliberations on Currie

ANNAPOLIS — A government watchdog group called on the Maryland General Assembly’s ethics panel on Thursday to open proceedings on Sen. Ulysses Currie’s failure to disclose work for a grocery store chain.

Jurors who acquitted Currie in November of conspiracy, bribery, extortion and other federal charges said after the trial that there may have been conflicts of interest and that those ethical questions should be handled by the General Assembly.

Susan Wichmann, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, spoke to reporters shortly after the panel adjourned from its first meeting of the new legislative session, which began Wednesday.

“If the General Assembly wants the public to have faith and credibility in the process, the best way to do that is to shine a bright light on it,” Wichmann said. “It’s the best disinfectant, and the process should be voted to be open.”

Ethics proceedings before the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics are typically closed to the public. They can be opened if nine of the panel’s 12 lawmakers vote to do that, or if the lawmaker facing disciplinary action opts to make them public.

Sen. Norman Stone, a Baltimore County Democrat who is the Senate chair of the panel, announced that Thursday’s meeting, which was attended by several journalists, would be closed. He noted that the panel is exempt from the state’s open meetings law when it considers possible disciplinary action against a lawmaker.

Delegate Brian McHale, the House chair of the panel, told reporters after the closed meeting that members talked about the process.

Neither Currie nor his counsel, former Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., attended. Murphy declined to comment later.

If no violation is found or if acts by a lawmaker are found to not warrant discipline, the proceedings generally remain confidential. Cases typically only become public if the panel decides to take action, and the lawmaker’s chamber takes a vote on sanctions.

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. Young was expelled on a 36-10 vote.

The case involving Currie, D-Prince George’s, had been highly publicized as the result of a federal bribery and extortion case that was brought against him. The senator was acquitted of all charges.

Still, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller forwarded the case to the panel for consideration.

“My prediction is that there will be consequences for the senator’s actions or inaction in not filling out disclosure forms,” Miller, D-Calvert and Prince George’s, told The Associated Press in an interview before the legislative session began.

Currie, who lost his chairmanship of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee when he was indicted, failed to disclose work he did for Shoppers Food Warehouse, which paid him more than $245,000 between 2003 and 2008. Federal prosecutors alleged the senator was selling his influence in Annapolis for political favors to help the company.