Starkly different portrayals of Maryland Sen. Ulysses Currie’s relationship with a local grocery chain were presented to jurors Tuesday as they began weighing federal bribery and extortion charges against the 74-year-old legislator in a federal courtroom in Baltimore.
A prosecutor used her opening statement to walk jurors through a series of instances in which she said Currie (D-Prince George’s) conspired with two corporate executives to provide government favors to Shoppers Food Warehouse for more than five years without disclosing $245,000 in payments.
“This is a case about a politician who took bribes,” Kathleen O. Gavin, an assistant U.S. attorney, told jurors at the outset of her presentation. “He sold his office for almost a quarter of a million dollars.”
Attorneys for Currie and the two executives countered that what unfolded looked nothing like bribery as most people understand it. Currie and Shoppers had signed a consulting contract, the lawyers said. Currie paid state and federal taxes on his income from Shoppers. And his work was hardly a “secret bribery relationship,” a defense lawyer said. Currie appeared in public at store openings across the region.
“Their allegations simply do not make sense,” said Lucius T. Outlaw III, an assistant federal public defender who is representing Currie and who warned jurors that they would hear nothing about wiretaps, hidden stashes of cash or kickbacks.
The lawyers’ statements were the opening salvos in what is expected to be a highly contentious trial that could, if Currie is convicted, send him, the former chairman of the Senate budget committee, to prison. The judge has said the trial is likely to run about six weeks.
Prosectors allege that Currie’s abuses of his position included helping Shoppers transfer a liquor license, get a rent reduction at one store, win approval for a stoplight benefiting another and secure a road improvement at a third location.
Gavin said that on several projects, Currie “summoned” high-ranking state officials to his office in Annapolis and that at no time did Currie share with them that he was being paid by Shoppers.
She said his activities went far beyond an initial agreement with Shoppers that called for providing help with minority outreach and community relations. That agreement, Gavin alleged, was “a sham.”
Currie’s lawyers sought to address some of the liabilities they face: politicians’ low standing with the public and the undisputed fact that Currie did not list his work for Shoppers on state financial disclosure forms for five years in a row.
Outlaw urged jurors to “judge this case on its merits” and not lump Currie in with corrupt politicians they’ve heard about. Currie, the son of a North Carolina sharecropper who gained his prominence through hard work, is actually “an American success story,” Outlaw said.
Outlaw said Currie’s failure to list Shoppers income on disclosure forms might be notable if it were the only omission over the years. But Currie has a history of providing inaccurate, inconsistent and untimely information on those forms, Outlaw said.
“Frankly, they’re a mess,” he said.
Outlaw also sought to broaden jurors’ understanding of Maryland’s “citizen legislature,” where a majority of lawmakers have outside employment.
Outlaw allowed that some of Currie’s actions could constitute a conflict of interest, but he said the evidence would show nothing Currie did met the definition of bribery or extortion.
Gavin offered a portrait of a far more deliberate scheme with the two grocery store executives, William White and R. Kevin Small, alleging they sought “to conceal the true nature of their relationship.”
In one case Gavin outlined, Currie worked with Shoppers as the chain sought to get the state Department of Transportation to widen a traffic roundabout at the new Ritchie Station Marketplace development in Capitol Heights.
The state initially decided that the developer of the project should pay for the expansion, a move that could have led to higher rent for a Shoppers store there, Gavin said.
In 2006, she said, Currie summoned then-Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan to his office in Annapolis and asked him for a “secretary’s grant” to pay for the project.
At the time, a bill was pending in Maryland that would have required Flanagan and other Cabinet officials under then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) to win a second confirmation from the Senate if Ehrlich won reelection. During the meeting, Gavin said, Currie brought up the bill, which had been nicknamed “the Flanagan bill,” a reflection of Flanagan’s unpopularity among Democrats in the legislature.
Flanagan declined. Later, after Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) was elected, Currie asked the same favor of O’Malley’s transportation secretary, John D. Porcari, Gavin said.
Outlaw countered that the second effort was unsuccessful as well and noted that the development in question was in Currie’s legislative district — making it appropriate for the senator to advocate for infrastructure improvements.
Other examples cited by Gavin affected stores outside Currie’s district.
More broadly, attorneys for Currie and the grocery executives argued that Currie’s primary role was setting up meetings based on his wide range of contacts in government and the community. They argued that Currie did nothing to pressure government officials and accepted, without protest, decisions that did not benefit Shoppers.