A federal prosecutor detailed extensive contact between state Sen. Ulysses Currie and various state agencies on behalf of Shoppers Food Warehouse during her opening statement Tuesday in his bribery case, seeking to draw a picture of a senator willing to pull every imaginable string on behalf of a company that was paying him.
"This is a case about a politician who took bribes," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Gavin. Currie, she said, "sold the power of his office for nearly a quarter of a million dollars to two corporate executives."
Defense attorneys for Currie, and two Shoppers executives who are also on trial, sought to portray a list of meetings Currie arranged with high-level state officials in a very different light: The senator, in their view, was "bringing people together" and never used his perch as the chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee improperly.
The government provided, for the first time, a detailed timeline of Currie's effort to convince the Maryland Department of Transportation to award up to $3 million to fix problems with a roundabout in Upper Marlboro. Prosecutors also offered more detail about three other projects in which Currie played a role.
The first attempt to secure the Upper Marlboro grant came in 2006, when Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan was under fire in the legislature over an unrelated issue, lawyers said. Prosecutors said Currie leaned on the secretary during a private meeting, telling Flanagan "you need friends" in the General Assembly.
Flanagan declined to help and left his post when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. left the governor's office. Prosecutors said Currie tried again with Gov. Martin O'Malley's transportation secretary, John Porcari.
Prosecutors also detailed Currie's attempts to have a Motor Vehicle Administration building in Baltimore moved to make way for a Shoppers store and an attempt to secure state grants to lower the store's rent at Mondawmin Mall.
They outlined months of work to pass a law allowing Shoppers to transfer a liquor license from a Takoma Park store to one in College Park. When that was accomplished, Currie also worked to persuade the Prince George's County liquor board to approve the deal, prosecutors said.
They also pointed to Currie's efforts to get a new stoplight at a Shoppers in Laurel, which included getting State Highway Administration head Neil Pedersen to make a site visit. In March 2005, Pedersen sent an "urgent" email to his staff asking for the signal to be expedited and noting that his agency had a lot of legislation before Currie's committee.
Defense attorneys noted that Currie failed to deliver favorable results for most of the projects outlined by the prosecutors. Currie was not successful in getting the $3 million in roundabout work, the MVA office relocation, or one of two stoplights Shoppers wanted, they said.
They also argued that Currie and the executives did not show any intent to take or give a bribe, key to proving a bribery charge. They pointed to letters between Currie and Shoppers executives that formalized an employment arrangement and noted that Currie paid taxes on money he received. The arrangement was out in the open for anyone to see, defense attorneys said.
"This is not the way bribery is done," said Jonathan S. Zucker, a defense attorney for former Shoppers executive Kevin Small. Currie's Senate staff was aware of the work he was doing and in fact helped, the lawyer said.
Defense attorneys attacked a key piece of prosecution evidence: Currie's failure to mention the Shoppers payments on his General Assembly disclosure forms. They said the omission was due to the senator's poor ability to handle paperwork, and not a sign that he was trying to hide the money from public scrutiny.
"Frankly they are a mess," said Lucius T. Outlaw, a federal public defender representing Currie, referring to the disclosure forms. "I'm not going to say that is a good thing. … This is one more example of untimely, inaccurate and incomplete forms."
One juror was excused yesterday and replaced with one of four alternates because he said he recognized a defendant when he saw him in the courtroom.
Testimony is expected to continue Wednesday morning with Pedersen taking the stand. The trial is expected to last six weeks.
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