A federal jury on Tuesday acquitted Maryland Sen. Ulysses Currie of all charges in a corruption case in which prosecutors had accused the Prince George’s County Democrat of taking more than $245,000 in bribes from two grocery chain executives.
The verdict was a remarkable moment of vindication for Currie, the 74-year-old son of a sharecropper who had ascended to chairman of the Senate budget committee, one of the legislature’s most powerful posts, before being charged last year in the probe.
A parade of politicians, including U.S. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), appeared as character witnesses in the trial, a testament to the goodwill that Currie had amassed in his 25 years in Annapolis.
And more than one state official testified that the favors sought by Currie were hardly unusual requests for a state legislator to make — though not on behalf of a paid client.
During the six-week trial, Currie’s attorneys argued that his work on behalf of Shoppers Food Warehouse — which he failed to disclose on state ethics forms for five years — was part of a legitimate consulting arrangement.
Currie’s efforts included advocating with high-ranking state officials for stoplight requests, helping faciliate the transfer of a liquor license and pushing development deals.
The senator’s attorneys acknowledged that his activities at times constituted a conflict of interest but said he never should have been charged with federal crimes. That view appeared to carry the day with the 12 jurors in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, who rendered not-guilty verdicts for Currie and the grocery executives on charges including bribery, extortion, conspiracy and lying to the FBI.
“There were clearly questionable ethical things . . . but that’s not what he was charged with,” said juror Steven Cason, 55, a software engineer from Freeland, Md. “That’s something for Annapolis and the General Assembly . . . to look at.”
When an FBI invesigation of Currie’s activities became public with the 2008 raid of his home, many of his colleagues in Annapolis — a capital that has experienced no shortage of corruption in recent decades — suggested he was among the last they would suspect of knowingly committing a crime.
Although Currie did not include the consulting work on this ethics forms, he did report the income on his federal tax returns and had signed contracts with Shoppers.
In several instances, the state officials involved said they were not aware of Currie’s financial relationship with the grocery chain. In some cases, he called meetings in his Senate office and used Senate stationery to make requests of government officials.
Senate President Thomas V. Miller Mike Jr. (D-Calvert) praised the jury’s verdict Tuesday night but said Currie would still face ethics proceedings when the General Assembly reconvenes.
“I am pleased and happy that the jury saw what his friends and colleagues know to be true, that is that Senator Currie is a good and decent man,” Miller said. “He may have made some mistakes, but he did not commit a crime.”
Currie, who did not take the stand in his defense, spoke briefly to reporters outside the courtroom, praising the work of his attorneys and of his co-defendants’ attorneys.
“It was a great outcome, and I have tremendous support,” Currie said.
Currie’s lead attorney, Joseph L. Evans, said he thought that the character witnesses helped the case and that the jury appeared to understand the lack of evidence.
“The evidence just isn’t there, as we’ve said all along,” Evans said.
Robert C. Bonsib, a Greenbelt defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, suggested that Currie was probably helped by the character witnesses.
“Jurors aren’t going to overlook a smoking gun, but if the evidence is equivocal, strong character witnesses can be very important as a jury evaluates whether a person had a criminal intent,” he said.
In a statement issued Tuesday night, U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said, “The jury’s verdict settles the question of federal criminal liability.”
The Currie case is a rare blemish on the record of Maryland’s top federal prosecutor. The successful corruption case Rosenstein built against Jack B. Johnson (D), the highest-ranking county official in Prince George’s, resulted in 14 other guilty pleas, including that of Johnson’s wife, former County Council member Leslie Johnson (D), as well as a former county housing official and three police officers.
Also acquitted Tuesday were William J. White, the former president of Shoppers, and R. Kevin Small, an executive who oversaw construction projects for the grocery chain.
From the outset, Currie’s defense team faced the challenge of explaining how he could rise to one of the most powerful posts in the Maryland legislature and yet ignore routine disclosure requirements — without doing so deliberately.
The senator’s attorneys also used defense witnesses to paint a portrait of a man who was disorganized, sloppy in separating his legislative and private business matters, and prone to memory lapses, in part because of the side effects of a drug he was taking as he battled advanced prostate cancer.
The first witness called by the defense, Timothy Maloney, a well-respected Maryland lawyer and former state delegate, suggested that Currie, despite extraordinary people skills, was not among the more intelligent members of the legislature.
Currie’s attorneys later backed away from that characterization, with his lead attorney telling the jury in closing arguments that Currie was “smart,” just not in the way that one might expect from someone with the title of budget committee chairman.
Some of the more damaging testimony for Currie came from former high-ranking state officials, who said the senator never disclosed his relationship with Shoppers during meetings about projects that would benefit the grocery chain.
Two former state transportation secretaries testified that Currie had sought a rare “secretary’s grant” of $2 million to $3 million to improve an interchange off the Capital Beltway. At the time, Shoppers was considering becoming a tenant at nearby development.
Defense attorneys countered that the project was in Currie’s district and that flaws in the intersection were causing more accidents and congestion than transportation officials expected.
Staff writers Ruben Castaneda and Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.