Jury selection in the federal bribery and extortion trial of Maryland Sen. Ulysses Currie and two Shoppers Food Warehouse executives opened Monday with the judge reading aloud a who's who in state politics.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. are among the more than two dozen former and current state leaders who are either likely to be mentioned during the lengthy trial or called to testify, according to U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett.
Opening statements are set to begin Tuesday morning and are expected to last about three hours. The first witnesses, who will include former State Highway Administrator Neil Pedersen, will likely be called after lunch, attorneys said.
The trial, which could last up to six weeks, is expected to shine a spotlight on the behind-the-scenes dealings of the state's part-time legislators. Most of them are also employed by private companies, as was Currie, who was the head of the state Senate's Budget and Taxation Committee.
The Prince George's County senator and his two co-defendants — William J. White, the former president of Shoppers Maryland division, and R. Kevin Small, its former vice president — are accused of using a public-relations consulting contract to hide a $245,000 bribery scheme that bought legislative favors for the food chain.
All three have denied the charges, and defense attorneys have said that the contract at worst amounts to a conflict of interest for the senator — one he failed to note on a government ethics form — but not bribery.
Currie, 74, sat on a bench behind his lawyers Monday as jury selection took place. After five hours or questioning, the pool of 74 candidates was whittled to 12 jurors and four alternates.
The senator declined to comment at the close of the proceeding Monday.
He is charged with nine counts, involving conspiracy, bribery, extortion and making false statements to FBI investigators who questioned him in 2008.
His attorneys said last week that the alleged untruths could be attributed to "potent drugs" the senator was taking at the time to battle a "very aggressive form" of prostate cancer. The medication reduced the senator's cognitive abilities and made him "fuzzy," said Federal Assistant Public Defender Joseph Evans.
The Shoppers executives are each charged with five related conspiracy and bribery crimes. The defendants face years in prison if convicted.
Court documents allege that Currie sent Shoppers Food Warehouse a proposal in late 2002, offering "substantial assistance" to the grocery chain, which developed a consulting contract with the senator worth $3,000 a month.
Prosecutors claim the contract was a cover, however, for the bribery scheme. They contend that Currie improperly used his influence, contacting state officials and agencies — including Pedersen, the state's Energy Administration and the State Highway Administration — to ask for various changes on Shoppers' behalf, such as the installation of a new traffic light, the relocation of an MVA office and the delayed implementation of certain revised energy standards.
The case received significant attention when it was filed last year, yet few jury candidates seemed to be familiar with it Monday.
When asked if they had any outside knowledge of the case, a half-dozen candidates said they had read about it more than a year ago, and one man acknowledged looking it up online after receiving a questionnaire about the case in the mail.
No one knew the defendants or attorneys on either side, and just a handful of people stood to say they were familiar with any of the roughly 110 potential witnesses. Lawyers on both sides declined to identify who was most likely to be called to court.
Bennett read the list alphabetically.
Among the more recognizable names are: Lt. Gov Anthony G. Brown; Joseph C. Bryce, O'Malley's chief legislative officer; Rep. Elijah E. Cummings; Del. Dereck E. Davis; James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., Ehlich's former chief of staff and a one-time budget secretary; David W. Edgerley, a former secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development; Ehrlich; former Maryland Del. Robert L. Flanagan; Sen. Jennie M. Forehand; Sen. Brian E. Frosh; former Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr.; lobbyist Gilbert Genn; Sen. Lisa A. Gladden; Victoria L. Gruber, Miller's chief of staff; former Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman; former Sen. Paula C. Hollinger; Rep. Steny H. Hoyer; Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; former Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah; former Del. Timothy Maloney; Aris Melissaratos, a former DBED secretary; Miller; O'Malley; Pedersen; Sen. Paul G. Pinsky; John D. Porcari, a former transportation secretary; former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke; and former Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun