It would have been easy in recent days to mistake Courtroom 5D as the site of a Maryland political convention rather than the forum for a public corruption trial.
Prominent Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation have made appearances, along with one of the party’s leading prospects for governor in the next election.
So, too, has the state’s best-known Republican interloper. Former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) testified that during the 25 years he has known Sen. Ulysses Currie, the Prince George’s Democrat has always been forthright and a gentleman.
“Certainly dealing with me, his integrity was very high,” Ehrlich, Maryland’s only Republican governor in a generation, told jurors last week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
The parade of sympathetic politicians has emerged as a key part of Currie’s defense in his lengthy trial on bribery charges. The defense is expected to rest Monday. After more than five weeks of testimony, the case is expected to go to the jury this week.
The 12 men and women who will decide Currie’s fate have appeared riveted by the high-profile character witnesses they recognize from television. But the defense strategy is not without risks for both Currie and the reputations of those who have stepped forward on his behalf.
“I don’t know whether a jury will look at politicians saying nice things about other politicians in a cynical way or a laudatory way,” said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. “I don’t think we have a way to know that.”
Prosecutors allege that under the guise of a consulting arrangement, Currie conspired with two grocery chain executives to do government favors for Shoppers Food Warehouse for more than five years in exchange for $245,000 in payments.
Currie’s defense has acknowledged he made a mistake by failing to disclose the employment on state ethics forms — Currie’s wife testified she filled those out for him — but argue the 74-year-old lawmaker did not commit a crime.
Legal experts say that character witnesses are rarely decisive in criminal trials. But such witnesses can make a defendant seem more likable and tip the scales if jurors are already leaning toward acquittal.
Jacob S. Frenkel, a former federal prosector who is not involved in the Currie case, said that “public officials, in the eyes of the jury, are not necessarily heroes.” But “the more public officials you put on, the better chance that one will resonate with a particular juror.”
If the defense cannot win an outright acquittal, Frenkel said, the next best scenario is to persuade one or more of the jurors not to vote for a conviction.
In Currie’s case, his lawyers have used fellow politicians and other character witnesses — including a university president — as part of a multi-pronged defense.
Other witnesses have made Currie’s involvement on behalf of Shoppers in a series of development deals and other episodes appear less consequential than in the prosecution case.
And some legislative staff and friends of Currie have bolstered the defense contention that the senator may have been sloppy in his business dealings but did not deliberately hide his relationship with Shoppers.
The character witnesses have stood out for both their prominence and their varied political pedigrees — as well as their unwavering support of a man facing prison if convicted this week.
Besides Ehrlich, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) stepped forward to say Currie is a “decent, honest person of integrity.” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D), who is popular in his Baltimore area district, called Currie “a straight shooter, a person I expect to tell you the truth.”
Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), who is gearing up to run for governor in 2014, told jurors that he considers Currie considers a friend, a mentor and “a man of strong integrity.”
And Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) said Currie is unlike many politicians who are “arrogant and full of themselves.”
“Senator Currie is the opposite of that,” Frosh said. “He’s kind to everyone.”
Most of the character witnesses called have not testified on the substance of the case and acknowledged they never knew about Currie’s work for Shoppers — testimony that probably cuts in favor of the prosecution.
Mike Morrill, a longtime Democratic political strategist in Maryland, said the breadth of support is testament to the strength of the relationships Currie has forged since he was first elected to the legislature in 1986.
“There’s probably only a handful of people in Annapolis who could generate that kind of support if they got in trouble,” Morrill said. “What I think it says is that across the political spectrum, relationships do count, and your reputation as an honorable person matters.”
Jurors have come to learn about the depth of some of those relationships.
Hoyer relayed that he and Currie had once lived in the same part of Prince George’s County, and that Currie bought his District Heights home from Hoyer in 1991. Currie and Hoyer’s late wife, Judith, also worked together as educators in the Prince George’s schools.
Brown said he got his start in Maryland politics by running Currie’s 1994 Senate campaign. Four years later, Brown ran for the House in the same legislative district that Currie represented as a senator.
Frosh and Currie rose to committee chairmanships around the same time, with Currie taking the gavel of Budget and Taxation in 2002 and Frosh taking the helm of Judicial Proceedings in 2003. For eight years, they sat next to each other on the Senate floor, Frosh told the jury.
Though the two are not close friends outside the legislature, their mutual affection was evident when Frosh ran into Currie outside the courtroom on the day he testified. The two embraced.
Ehrlich told jurors that he and Currie were both elected to the House of Delegates in 1986 and developed a friendship. Ehrlich left Annapolis for eight years to serve in Congress. When he returned to the Democrat-dominated state as governor in 2003, friends “were in short supply at times,” Ehrlich told the jury.
Despite their party differences, Currie and Ehrlich’s administration worked well together on budget issues, by all accounts.
When news first broke in 2008 of the FBI investigation into Currie’s activities, Ehrlich counseled listeners on a radio show that he hosted at the time “to hold their water for a little bit,” calling Currie “a good guy.”
Last year, when Currie was indicted, Ehrlich repeated the admonition to reporters covering his failed comeback campaign against Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).
Oustide the courtroom last week, Ehrlich told reporters that he considered testifying the right thing to do and that he was not concerned about any affect it might have on his reputation.
“I said honest things,” Ehrlich said. “Everything I said would be corroborated by those on both sides of the aisle.”
Morrill said that for those testifying, there is some risk of “associating with someone who made a mistake.” But he said it would be difficult for political opponents to use their testimony against them, given the wide range of people who stepped forward.
“If he’s not convicted, they can all be self-congratulatory and congratulate him,” Norris said. “If he is convicted, they can say they knew a different man.”