Senator Seeks to Pay Legal Fees With Campaign Funds

Federal agents raided state Sen. Ulysses Currie's home May 29.
Federal agents raided state Sen. Ulysses Currie's home May 29. (Chris Gardner - AP)
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By Rosalind S. Helderman and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sen. Ulysses Currie, under federal investigation in connection with consulting work he performed for a grocery store chain, has asked the Maryland State Board of Elections whether he can use campaign funds to pay for his legal fees.

In a letter dated June 12, Currie (D-Prince George's) asked for "clarification and a formal opinion concerning the appropriate use of my campaign funds." Currie said he has engaged counsel to represent him in connection with a "federal criminal investigation that appears to relate to my position as a member of the General Assembly."

The FBI raided Currie's home May 29, as well as the Lanham headquarters of Shoppers Food and Pharmacy. Currie, the chairman of the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee, has served as a consultant for the company but has not listed the relationship on financial disclosure forms.

Currie noted in his letter that no charges have been filed and wrote that he does not expect any. But he suggested that if charges were filed, they would affect his "continued viability as a candidate for public office."

Separately, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation said late yesterday that the state's Motor Vehicle Administration and the Maryland Transit Administration have received subpoenas in connection with the investigation. Copies of the subpoenas were not immediately available.

Currie referred all questions about the investigation yesterday to his attorney Dale Kelberman, who did not return a call for comment.

In recent years, Currie has emerged as one of the most prolific fundraisers in the Senate behind President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert). Currie's prowess is not unusual for a chairman of the budget panel, given the variety of issues before the committee.

Currie had more than $350,000 in campaign funds in the bank as of Feb. 1, according to a report filed with the State Board of Elections. A retired school administrator, Currie, 70, makes $43,500 annually as a member of the General Assembly.

An opinion issued by the Maryland attorney general's office in 1993 concluded that an elected official can use campaign funds to pay debts incurred in the defense of a criminal prosecution only if the charges directly related to alleged campaign improprieties.

The opinion was prompted by the experience of then-Del. Tony E. Fulton (D-Baltimore), who had been accused of diverting legislative funds for campaign purposes. He was acquitted by a jury.

The attorney general's office determined that Fulton could tap campaign funds to help with his legal costs because of the nature of the allegation. Under Maryland law, campaign expenditures must be used "to promote . . . the success or defeat of any candidate."

The 1993 opinion stressed that campaign funds may not generally be used to defend against criminal charges and cited an indictment for armed robbery as an example.

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