Md. Senator's Actions Affected Grocery Chain
Sunday, July 20, 2008
State Sen. Ulysses Currie's actions involving the grocery store chain that paid him as a consultant were, for the most part, decidedly mundane: He nudged the machinery of government on such issues as the installation of a traffic light and the approval of a parking lot entrance.
Yet those matters, the focus of a federal investigation into Currie, chairman of one of the Maryland legislature's most powerful committees, were hardly inconsequential to the grocery chain, experts and people involved in some of the discussions say.
In 2004, when Currie (D-Prince George's) prodded the State Highway Administration to reconsider its denial of a request for a traffic light in Laurel, the company played "hardball" over the issue, said Janet Owens (D), who was then Anne Arundel County executive. She said Shoppers Food and Pharmacy threatened to forgo rebuilding the store, which had been destroyed in a fire, if the light was not allowed.
"These are not small issues," said Peter Framson, a Bethesda-based real estate broker who focuses on retail. "If getting in and out of a particular shopping center is easier than getting in and out of another shopping center, that is going to have an effect on where you shop. . . . It will show up at the cash register."
Nor were they inconsequential to residents who opposed them. In College Park, residents fought a bid by Shoppers to sell beer and wine at a store in their neighborhood. Dozens of residents, including members of the city council, attended a 2005 hearing before the county liquor board, at which, despite their opposition, a license was granted.
Like others, Shirley Sabin, 73, was dismayed to learn later that the grocery chain had hired Currie as a consultant -- a fact he did not mention on financial disclosure filings. The lawmaker was also present at the meeting, although he did not speak.
"We had a chance to talk, but we might as well have been talking to the brick wall," Sabin said of the efforts to persuade the liquor board to deny the license. "I could have stayed home for those 10 hours."
Currie, 70, chairman of the budget and taxation committee, has referred all questions to his attorney, Dale Kelberman. Kelberman has declined to comment.
Supervalu Inc., Shoppers' parent company, has declined to comment except to confirm Currie's role as a consultant. Haley M. Meyer, a Supervalu spokeswoman, has said that the company is cooperating with federal authorities. Currie did not disclose the relationship in the state-required filings.
Some of the lawmaker's colleagues have come to his defense, arguing that his advocacy on behalf of a major employer based in his county is nothing unusual.
Even so, in interviews last week, some senators expressed bewilderment at Currie's failure to disclose the relationship. One former senator, John A. Giannetti Jr., said Currie told him in 2004 that he was working for Shoppers, but many others, including Senate leaders and several members of the county's delegation, said Currie never discussed his consulting work.
Owens said she knew of no such tie in 2004, when Currie approached her about the light at the store in Anne Arundel. She said she thought he had taken an interest because his constituents shopped at the Laurel store. She said she would have ended the conversation had she known he was being paid by the company.