Maryland Sen. Currie indicted on charges of taking bribes from grocery chain

By Maria Glod and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 2, 2010; 12:10 AM

Longtime Maryland Sen. Ulysses Currie, one of the most powerful and popular figures in the General Assembly, was indicted Wednesday on charges that he took more than $245,000 in bribes to use his position and influence to do favors for a grocery chain.

The 48-page indictment, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, comes after a years-long FBI investigation into consulting work Currie (D-Prince George's) did for Shoppers Food and Pharmacy. Over six years, the indictment alleges, Currie took action to help Shoppers sell liquor at one store, save money in the construction of another store and buy land. Two former Shoppers officials also were indicted by the federal grand jury.

Shoppers hired Currie to work as a consultant focusing on public affairs, minority recruitment, and outreach and community relations. But in reality, prosecutors allege, Shoppers paid him to use his Senate seat to benefit the company's business and financial interests.

Currie, 73, highlighted his actions in a paper he wrote in September 2007, hoping to justify continued payments from the grocery chain, the indictment says. He called the document "Accomplishments on Behalf of Shoppers." He wrote that he was "in a unique position to assist Shoppers in expanding its mission and increasing its bottom line" and that he would bring the company "many more opportunities," court papers say.

Currie declined to comment. His attorney, Dale P. Kelberman, said in a statement that the charges are unfounded.

"Simply put, he has committed no crime," Kelberman said. "Senator Currie has devoted his life to public service and he has been a leader in the culture of compassion for the least fortunate among us. The Government's portrait of Senator Currie as a corrupt politician is completely at odds with all who have known him for nearly 40 years."

The indictment had immediate repercussions in Annapolis, where Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) announced that Currie would temporarily step down from his coveted position as chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. Miller said Currie is a "man of faith and integrity" and called himself "confident he will be exonerated."

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) said in a statement that it was a "sad day for the people of Prince George's County and Senator Currie personally" and that the matter was in the hands of the courts.

Currie faces charges including bribery, conspiracy, extortion, mail fraud and false statements. Authorities allege that Currie received payments that started at $3,000 a month beginning in February 2003. By December 2007, his monthly payment was $7,600. For five years, Currie did not disclose the payments on state ethics forms in what prosecutors say was an effort to hide the relationship.

Shoppers Food Warehouse reached an agreement with prosecutors to pay a $2.5 million penalty to end the case. That deal still requires the court's approval.

Luke Friedrich, a spokesman for Shoppers' parent, said the company wanted to put the matter behind it and noted that the officials who are charged no longer work for the chain. "We promptly ended the relationship with the senator after these actions were revealed, and we have cooperated fully with the government's investigation," Friedrich said. "It is of the utmost importance to our executive management team and the leadership at Shoppers that our company adheres to the highest ethical standards at all levels of the organization."

U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein described the alleged conduct as a "pay-to play" approach, saying it undermines public confidence and hurts companies that play by the rules.

"Government officials cross a bright line when they accept payments in return for using the authority of their office, whether they take cash in envelopes or checks labeled as consulting payments," Rosenstein said.

William J. White, 67, former president of Shoppers, and R. Kevin Small, 55, who had been the chain's vice president for real estate development, also were charged Wednesday.

Currie, who is popular in his legislative district and county, has a long history in Maryland politics and has been praised by members of both political parties for working to find common ground. He was greeted enthusiastically Saturday at a Democratic rally in Prince George's. He was introduced by Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), who noted that he got his start in Maryland politics working for Currie.

A sharecropper's son from North Carolina, Currie served in the Army in the early 1960s and moved to Prince George's, returning to school at American University for a master's degree in education. He spent more than 30 years as a teacher, school principal and leader of his county's Head Start program. Currie was elected to represent his Prince George's district in the House of Delegates in 1986. Eight years later, he won his Senate seat.

The investigation became public in May 2008, when FBI agents raided Currie's home in District Heights, seizing bank statements, tax records, and correspondence between the senator and Shoppers. The same day, agents conducted a search of Shoppers' Lanham corporate headquarters.

In the months after the raids, federal agents seized reams of documents from the government. Later, a grand jury in Baltimore heard from witnesses, including the chairman of the Prince George's liquor board and another state lawmaker.

Over the past several years, according to the indictment, Currie has repeatedly intervened with state agencies on issues of interest to Shoppers. Those include redevelopment of a Baltimore mall where Shoppers hoped to open a store, the transfer of a liquor license from one Shoppers store to another and efforts to delay energy efficiency standards that would cost the company money.

Prosecutors allege that Currie pushed state transportation officials to move ahead with multimillion-dollar road improvements and traffic lights that benefited Shoppers stores.

Not all the projects Currie is accused of advocating on behalf of Shoppers came to fruition.

Despite the looming investigation, no one stepped forward before the July 6 filing deadline to oppose Currie in the Sept. 14 primary. Elections officials said the only way for another Democrat to get on the ballot would be if Currie withdraws. Republicans, who are a distinct minority in Prince George's, have no means to get a candidate on the either the primary or Nov. 2 general election ballot at this point, elections officials said. If a candidate steps up to oppose Currie, he could run as a write-in candidate.

Staff writer Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.

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