Grand Jury Hears From Pr. George's Liquor Board Chief

By Rosalind S. Helderman and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 8, 2009

The chairman of the Prince George's County liquor board appeared yesterday before a federal grand jury investigating Maryland state Sen. Ulysses S. Currie, the first public indication in months that federal authorities are continuing to probe Currie's work as a consultant for a Lanham-based grocery chain.

Franklin Jackson, the chairman of the Board of Liquor License Commissioners, said he testified for more than 1 1/2 hours in Baltimore. Jackson, who also testified in September, declined to comment further.

The development comes as Maryland lawmakers prepare to convene next week for a 90-day legislative session, a gathering likely to be dominated by the state's projected budget shortfall. As chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Tax Committee, Currie will play an important role.

Federal authorities have been investigating Currie's work on behalf of Shoppers Food and Pharmacy. According to court documents, Shoppers paid Currie more than $207,000 starting in 2003, income he did not include on state financial disclosure forms. Documents and interviews show that the Prince George's Democrat intervened repeatedly with state agencies on issues of interest to Shoppers.

Currie and his attorney, Dale Kelberman, declined to comment yesterday, as did a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office.

Federal investigators appear to be scrutinizing a decision by the five-member Prince George's liquor board to allow Shoppers to transfer a beer and wine license from its store near Takoma Park to one in College Park. Currie had voted on legislation in 2005 that allowed the transfer to take place and later attended a lengthy liquor board hearing on the matter.

Also yesterday, William G. Somerville, a lawyer who advises the General Assembly on ethics issues, said he testified before the grand jury in recent months, and Norma Lindsay, the county's chief liquor inspector, said she has been called to appear next week.

State officials had resisted the subpoena served on Somerville, arguing that forcing him to divulge conversations with Currie would violate attorney-client privilege. It is not clear how federal officials compelled Somerville's appearance. He referred questions to state lawyer Dan Friedman, who declined to comment.

Lindsay said she was interviewed by FBI agents in August about calls that were made from Currie's phones to her number while the Shoppers liquor license transfer was under consideration. Lindsay, who was the county Democratic Party chairman when the calls were made, said she told the FBI that she and Currie talked about political issues, not Shoppers.

Legislative analysts are projecting a nearly $1.9 billion shortfall in the coming fiscal year, a gap that Currie's committee must work to help close before the legislature's adjournment in April.

In an interview yesterday, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) reiterated his support for having Currie continue to lead the committee, pending additional developments in the case.

"Senator Currie is a valued member of the Senate, and he hasn't been charged with anything. Until the federal government acts, he's going to continue to be chairman, " Miller said.

Miller said he is hopeful that any transgressions by Currie will be addressed by the General Assembly's ethics committee "and not a federal prosecution."

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