By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun
5:14 PM EDT, November 3, 2011
Defense and government lawyers in the bribery trial of Maryland Sen. Ulysses S. Currie sparred for hours Thursday during final arguments, each side accusing the other of misstating the facts, then exhibiting outrage at the opponent's allegations. The federal case was handed over to the jury for deliberation Thursday afternoon.
Joseph L. Evans, Currie's public defender, said that representing the 74-year-old politician was the "proudest" moment of his professional career — a "privilege" — because of his client's character as a "decent, honorable and forthright" individual.
He insisted that Currie is innocent and claimed prosecutors fabricated a conspiracy in which Currie traded legislative favors for nearly a quarter-million dollars from Shoppers Food Warehouse over a five-year period, beginning in 2003. He also said it defied logic to believe that the three men accused in the scheme would, in the "twilight" of their careers, decide to engage in such illegal activity "like it's some kind of bizarre bucket list."
"Does that make any sense at all?" Evans asked.
The comments, delivered over 90 minutes, were the attorney's final chance to direct the jury toward an acquittal for Currie and co-defendants R. Kevin Small and William J. White, two former Shoppers executives whose attorney argued for them individually Wednesday.
Jurors took over the case Thursday afternoon, after Evans and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Gavin presented their last arguments.
Evans described the arrangement between Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat, and Shoppers as an above-board consulting agreement that dozens knew about, saying Currie even called an ethics officer to ask if the business dealing was acceptable.
He admitted, however, that the senator made a poor choice in voting for legislation that would allow a liquor license transfer between Shoppers stores while on the company's payroll, but said that such a transgression at most should be handled by state prosecutors, not federal litigators.
"A state official having a conflict of interest does not violate federal law," Evans said. "It does not belong in this courthouse."
He accused prosecutors of making a "trophy" out of Currie by taking on the case to enhance their reputations and of molding the evidence to suit their theories in "shocking," "unbelievable" and "utterly inappropriate" ways.
"You were left with the impression, because of the way the questions were asked, that something nefarious was going on," Evans told jurors, explaining later that Currie's alleged lies to the FBI were a consequence of fuzzy thinking induced by a prostate cancer medication.
And, contradicting the testimony of his own witness, Evans described Currie as "intelligent."
"Senator Currie is not dumb, Senator Currie is smart," he said, adding, however, that Currie "doesn't write well" and "is a mess when it comes to organization." A defense theme throughout the six-week trial has been Currie's inability to mastermind an extortion scheme and remember to do things like fill out required financial disclosure forms properly.
"If Senator Currie doesn't know he's misusing his office to extort Shoppers Food Warehouse, then he's not," Evans said.
He closed by stating that Currie "is a good and decent man who did not do what he's accused of doing," and turned the floor over to Gavin for rebuttal.
She characterized Evans' defense strategy through an adage learned in law school: If the facts and the law are against you, attack the government. "And that's what happened here," Gavin told jurors.
The defense threw up "a whole lot of mud and smoke and dust," she said, referring to a "parade" of politicians who appeared as character witnesses on Currie's behalf, without knowing the inner workings of the Shoppers arrangement. They tried to tell jurors that "Senator Currie is too stupid" to commit the crime, she said, adding that such a tactic is "cynical, disrespectful and it is not true."
Currie is accused of selling his office to Shoppers, by using his power as a senator and the chairman of the state's budget committee to acquire state funding for the company, lobby for traffic lights at certain locations, delay land developments and hold up the implementation of energy efficiency requirements.
He was paid $246,000 for his efforts.
Currie, White and Small covered up the bribery scheme with a community relations consulting contract, she said, and told people about it so the arrangement would all appear legitimate.
"They were buying a senator, that's what they were doing," Gavin said, and Currie knew it.
He signed at least three Shoppers contracts over the years, during the same periods he filled out his required financial disclosure forms, yet he repeatedly neglected to mention the consulting arrangement, which should have been forefront in his mind, Gavin said.
"This was no mistake, this was no accident, this was not negligence, it was intentional," she said.
She asked why Currie lied to investigators, saying among other things that he only dealt with White on minority recruitment matters, rather than claim he didn't remember if medication was making him "fuzzy." She also said that being a well-liked man is "not a defense here."
"Sometimes good people do bad things," Gavin said.
All three men are charged with conspiracy and various counts of bribery. White and Currie are additionally accused of lying to FBI agents, who interviewed them about the case in 2008. If convicted on all charges and sentenced to consecutive terms, they each face the potential of decades in prison.
Jurors are expected to resume deliberations Friday morning.
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