Backers Start Currie Defense Fund

Sen. Ulysses Currie, the subject of a federal probe, said his role in the defense effort is
Sen. Ulysses Currie, the subject of a federal probe, said his role in the defense effort is "hands-off." (By Gail Burton -- Associated Press)
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By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Supporters of Sen. Ulysses Currie have launched a legal fund to help the Prince George's Democrat pay the cost of defending himself in an ongoing federal probe of his consulting work for Shoppers Food and Pharmacy.

Lawyer and pastor Bobby G. Henry Jr., a lead organizer of the effort, said the Currie Defense Fund was formed to give friends of the senator a way to help underwrite his legal fees. Currie has retained two prominent attorneys to represent him in the case, which became public in May when the FBI raided the senator's District Heights home and the Lanham headquarters of the grocery chain.

Currie had been paid more than $207,000 by the grocer since 2003, income he did not disclose on state ethics forms. Documents and interviews indicated that he intervened repeatedly with state agencies on issues of interest to the company.

"Every man, woman and child is presumed innocent of all charges until proven otherwise," said Henry, who is a trustee of the fund. "That whole process can be quite expensive. We wanted to give people in the community an opportunity to assist in making sure that justice is served in this particular case."

Maryland ethics law places strict limitations on gift-giving to elected officials, rules that the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics has said apply to legal defense funds. Under those rules, Currie can accept funds for his legal fees, but he cannot ask for donations.

He is also barred from accepting donations from any person whose financial interest in his legislative work is greater than that of the general public. William G. Somerville, the legislature's ethics counsel, said lobbyists are forbidden from donating.

Somerville said it would be up to the ethics committee to determine whether other potential donors are also barred, including leaders of companies that employ lobbyists and executives of nonprofits that seek state aid.

Currie is also required by law to disclose to the ethics committee the names and addresses of donors to the fund.

Currie, who chairs the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee, said yesterday he is "completely hands-off" of the effort and declined to comment further.

Henry said he has been coordinating the legal fund directly with Currie's attorneys and that the senator will not be involved. Several hundred solicitation letters have been sent to potential donors, including some lawmakers, Henry said.

Henry said he has spoken with Somerville and is committed to ensuring the fund abides by the state's rules. "We're trying to check and double-check ourselves to make sure everything remains compliant," he said.

The fund was formed in December and a Web site was launched for it late last month, Henry said. The timing of the launch drew some questions yesterday because it was near the Jan. 14 start of the General Assembly's legislative session. Lawmakers are barred from campaign fundraising during the session to avoid the impression that political donations could cultivate legislative favor.

Henry said he and others have been working to create the fund for months and it was "completely incidental" that they completed the effort as the session began.

He said the fund's trustees, who include Larry Jordan, a bishop at the Believers Worship Center in Prince George's, and pastor and accountant Vanetta L. Brice, will make lists of donors regularly available to the public. He said the first list should be available in two to three weeks.

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