Both sides showed some of their cards Monday during a lengthy pre-trial hearing in the federal government’s bribery case against Maryland Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George’s).
Judge Richard D. Bennett said he would rule within 10 days on a defense motion to dismiss most of the remaining charges against Currie, whom prosecutors allege accepted more than $245,000 from Shoppers Food Warehouse & Pharmacy in return for using his legislative office to benefit the chain over six years.
That and a handful of other motions were at issue Monday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. But the arguments offered a preview of what’s to come if the case goes to trial as scheduled Sept. 26. In addition to Currie, two former Shoppers executives have also been indicted.
Currie’s lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Joseph L. Evans, acknowledged that Currie did not list his consulting arrangement with Shoppers on state financial disclosure forms. But Evans said that does not make Currie, former chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, guilty of what prosecutors allege.
“Frankly, our defense is that there was an undisclosed conflict of interest,” Evans told Bennett. “A conflict of interest is not bribery.”
Prosecutors say Currie took action to help Shoppers sell liquor at one store, save money in the construction of another store, buy land and seek traffic improvements from the State Highway Administration.
“Everyone will come to know that virtually nothing that Senator Currie ostensibly did for Shoppers happened,” Evans said. “There are a couple small exceptions.”
In arguing that the bribery charges should be dismissed, Evans said the nature of Maryland’s part-time legislature makes it very difficult to establish when Currie was exercising his “official duties” as a senator and when he was acting as a private consultant for Shoppers. Maryland lawmakers are allowed to have outside employment, and most do, Evans said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo J. Wise countered that when Currie facilitated meetings between state officials and Shoppers representatives, state officials were under the impression that he was acting in his capacity as the budget chairman.
“No private consultant can pick up the phone and say, ‘This is the chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee,’ ” Wise said. “All of the people he interacted with believed they were interacting with the chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.”
Wise said Currie also summoned state officials to his legislative office for Shoppers-related meetings and used his legislative stationery to make inquiries on the company’s behalf.
“The consulting arrangement was a cover,” Wise alleged. “At its core was paying him for official acts and access to his office.”
The indictment against Currie contained 18 counts when issued in September. In May, prosecutors dismissed eight counts in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that undercut a legal theory they were pursuing in the Currie case.
On Monday, the defense sought to dismiss eight of the remaining 10 counts related to bribery and extortion. A motion to sever two other counts, alleging false statements, was denied.