Ethics Counsel Testimony Is Sought in Currie Probe

Sen. Ulysses Currie's dealings with a grocery chain are being investigated.
Sen. Ulysses Currie's dealings with a grocery chain are being investigated. (Courtesy Of Ulysses Currie)
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By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 4, 2008

As part of an ongoing probe of Sen. Ulysses Currie, federal prosecutors are seeking to force the lawyer who gives ethics advice to the Maryland General Assembly to testify before a grand jury, a move that state lawyers have vigorously resisted as a breach of attorney-client privilege.

A subpoena served on William G. Somerville, the legislature's ethics counsel, sought testimony and "any and all" documents related to paid consulting work performed for a grocery chain by Currie, a powerful Prince George's County Democrat.

Somerville's job, which the legislature created as part of a 1999 ethics reform package, requires him to provide private counsel to legislators on potential conflicts of interest arising from their outside business dealings. The position is considered unique among state legislatures.

Currie's work for Shoppers Food and Pharmacy, which was not disclosed in ethics filings, is the focus on an investigation that became public in May when FBI agents raided Currie's home and the company's Lanham headquarters.

In a letter to federal prosecutors, state lawyers representing Somerville wrote in July that he declined to testify because his conversations with Currie, the chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, are considered privileged under Maryland law.

That privilege has not been challenged previously in Maryland or federal courts.

"Because any knowledge Mr. Somerville may or may not have about Senator Currie's consulting business could only have been learned from these privileged conversations, Mr. Somerville has no non-privileged testimony to give and respectfully declines to testify," wrote two assistant attorneys general who represent the legislature.

Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said requiring Somerville to testify would set a "dangerous" precedent for the legislature.

"People wouldn't seek guidance on ethical issues when they ought to," Frosh said, arguing that Somerville's position is no different from that of any other lawyer. "The right not to incriminate yourself goes out the window if someone can call your lawyer and ask him, 'Hey, what did he tell you?' "

Vickie E. LeDuc, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore, which is seeking testimony from Somerville, declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for the Maryland attorney general's office. Currie declined to comment, and Dale Kelberman, a lawyer for Currie, did not return a phone call.

In a written response to a Public Information Act request by The Washington Post, one of the state lawyers suggested that that issue is being litigated "under seal" in U.S. District Court. The lawyer, Dan Friedman, declined to provide copies of any pleadings in the matter, which sources familiar with the issue said remains unresolved.

Kathleen Dachille, an associate professor at the University of Maryland Law School, said she sees no reason why the attorney-client privilege granted by Maryland law should not be recognized in this case.

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