Correction: An earlier version of this article about the trial of state Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George’s) on bribery charges misquoted Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). Miller said he thinks Currie did not intend to commit a “criminal offense,” not a “criminal defense.” This version has been corrected.
The reception that Maryland Sen. Ulysses Currie received was not unlike those during his days as chairman of his chamber’s budget panel: a series of hearty handshakes and warm pats on the back.
But the Prince George’s Democrat was taking a seat not in front of a familiar legislative committee room but behind the defense table in a courtroom where he is expected to spend the next several weeks fighting federal bribery charges that could send him to prison for years.
As they finalize preparations for his trial, which begins Monday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Currie’s attorneys face a considerable challenge: convincing a jury that Currie could ascend to one of the most powerful posts in the General Assembly and yet make what they say were puzzling but not criminal mistakes in representing a grocery chain — a relationship he did not disclose on ethics forms for five years.
To that end, Currie’s attorneys are preparing to call a parade of character witnesses to help jurors better understand the 74-year-old senator, who has a reputation as an even-tempered — though not particularly detail-oriented — consensus builder and who has battled prostate cancer in recent years.
The witness list has not been made public, but there are indications it could include some familiar faces from Annapolis and Currie’s legislative district.
Maryland’s Democratic governor and lieutenant governor and its Republican former governor are among those whom Currie’s attorneys have approached about taking the stand, their associates said. Spokesmen for Gov. Martin O’Malley and Lt Gov. Anthony G. Brown declined to comment, while an aide said former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., with whom Currie had a friendly relationship despite party differences, is willing to testify.
Some veteran State House staffers also have been contacted, and the judge in the case hinted during a pretrial hearing Friday that some of Currie’s legislative colleagues are likely to appear in court as well.
“Most people would say this man’s led a good and honorable life,” said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who appointed Currie chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee in 2002 and recently played golf with him. “He served in the U.S. military, rose to become a principal in the Prince George’s school system, was elected to the House of Delegates and Maryland Senate, all without a blemish on his record. . . . He’s very well liked and very well respected in his community. These young prosecutors should walk in his shoes.”
Prosecutors contend that Currie’s actions will be impossible to explain away and that he crossed a “bright line,” as U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein put it after Currie was indicted a year ago.
They allege that under the guise of a consulting relationship, Currie abused his position to benefit Shoppers Food Warehouse in several ways, and that the more than $245,000 that he received in payments amount to bribes and extortion.
The indictment against Currie cites several specific instances in which he is alleged to have pressed state officials to help Shoppers with land acquisition, road improvements and stoplights and to delay energy-efficiency standards for commercial refrigerators, saving the company money.
The prosecution said that the state officials had no reason to know Currie was being paid by Shoppers and that in at least one case, Currie’s request for help was made on the letterhead of the Senate budget committee. The prosecution is being led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen O. Gavin.
The prosecution also alleges that Currie made false statements to FBI agents during an early-morning raid of his District Heights home in May 2008, when the investigation into his arrangement with Shoppers became public.
Through pretrial motions and arguments, the thrust of Currie’s defense has become evident.
Currie’s lead attorney, Joseph L. Evans, has acknowledged in court that his client might have created an “undisclosed conflict of interest” by not reporting his relationship with Shoppers on ethics forms.
But Evans, an assistant federal public defender, argued that does not rise to the level of the criminal extortion and bribery conspiracy in which Currie is accused of taking part.
Two former Shoppers executives, William J. White and R. Kevin Small, are to be tried in this case as well.
“The jury needs to understand the difference between bribery and conflict of interest,” Evans said during Friday’s hearing. “This conduct may amount to a conflict of interest, but it doesn’t amount to bribery.”
In a previous hearing, Evans said the “parade of horrors” alleged by prosecutors wasn’t what it seemed.
“I think everyone will come to know that virtually nothing, virtually nothing that Senator Currie ostensibly did for Shoppers happened,” Evans said. “I mean, there are a couple exceptions, but none of these things, these grants and millions of dollars and all this kind of stuff, none of that ever went anywhere. None of it went anywhere.”
Pretrial motions have also suggested that Currie’s defense team will highlight the involvement of lawyers in crafting his original arrangement in Shoppers in 2002 and 2003 — and show that no “red flags” were raised, as Evans put it Friday.
A letter sent by Currie to Shoppers in December 2002 offered to provide help with activities such as “community relations assistance” and “minority employment recruitment and outreach” — services that prosecutors allege were a cover for more illicit assistance.
The defense could call Timothy Maloney, a former state delegate and well-known Maryland lawyer, to share his role in advising Currie in late 2002. But it’s unclear how much help Maloney’s testimony would ultimately provide.
“At Senator Currie’s request, our firm prepared a letter in which he outlined for Shoppers the types of duties he could perform for them and avoid the appearance of any conflict with his legislative duties,” Maloney said in a statement to The Washington Post. “The letter also advised Shoppers he would refrain from lobbying state and local legislative bodies because of his elected position. The consulting contract with Shoppers was prepared the following year without our firm’s involvement.”
Miller, the Senate president, said it’s clear to him that Currie made some mistakes.
“But did he intend to commit a criminal offense? Absolutely not,” Miller said, attributing some of Currie’s disclosure lapses to a lack of “trained staff.”
Currie, the son of a North Carolina sharecropper who has served in the legislature since 1986, also has defenders back in his legislative district, where he was reelected last year two months after he was indicted.
“I don’t think what he did was an attempt to be deceptive,” said Arthur A. Turner Jr., a businessman and community activist who lives in Kettering. “Some people are criminal-minded. I don’t see him in that vein.”
Currie stepped down from his chairmanship after last year’s indictment but has remained visible in his community, said Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), who shares a legislative district with Currie.
Davis said there hasn’t been much conversation recently about what Currie is facing.
“When I see him places, people are always very respectful,” Davis said. “It’s probably just uncomfortable for everyone, so no one brings it up. He’s done a lot of good for this community. Everyone’s wishing him well. I know I am.”
Staff writer Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.