After six weeks of trial, jurors are expected to begin deliberating Thursday in the federal bribery trial of Maryland Sen. Ulysses S. Currie and two Shoppers Food Warehouse executives.
The three men are accused of using a public-relations consulting contract to surreptitiously pay the Prince George's County Democrat a quarter-million dollars over five years for illegal legislative favors.
Defense witnesses described Currie as a pleasant, yet bumbling, legislator incapable of such deceit, but prosecutors rejected that notion Wednesday during final arguments, which are expected to continue Thursday. Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise instead portrayed the 74-year-old senator as calculating and furtive about his arrangement with the food chain.
Currie used his personal popularity and political power as chairman of the Senate's budget committee to "obtain valuable state benefits for Shoppers," Wise said, including liquor license legislation, traffic pattern changes and rent assistance. Currie is accused of doing that while hiding his affiliation with the company from state officials.
"Despite all the testimony about how forgetful he was, how absent-minded… the evidence is he never, never forgot about Shoppers and their interests," Wise said. "He was persistent, he was effective. Senator Currie used his office to get Shoppers what they wanted… That's why they paid him."
Defense lawyers suggested that prosecutors were paranoid, seeing conspiracy where none existed. And they stressed, as they have throughout the trial, the good characters of their clients.
Joshua Treem asked jurors to acquit his client, William J. White, a former Shoppers president, because the retired executive doesn't have it "in his DNA" to bribe anyone, Treem said.
It was a plea echoed by Jonathan Zucker, an attorney for co-defendant R. Kevin Small, a former Shoppers vice president, and one that's likely to be repeated by Currie's lawyer, assistant federal public defender Joseph Evans, who is scheduled to present his closing arguments Thursday morning.
During the trial, Evans presented a parade of politicians — including a former Maryland governor, the current lieutenant governor and the second-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives — who emphasized Currie's affable nature and played down his intelligence.
The lengthy trial, which has stretched from September to November, was supposed to wind up Wednesday, but closing presentations ran long. Wise, Treem and Zucker spent more than 90 minutes apiece before the jury, trying to sway members toward their interpretations of events.
The defendants are charged with participating in a bribery scheme that lasted from December 2002 through May 2008 in which Currie allegedly operated as a lobbyist for Shoppers while posing as a concerned politician.
The company paid him nearly $246,000 during that time, and Currie undertook at least seven separate projects on Shoppers' behalf, Wise said.
In 2003, Currie reached out to state transportation officials to push for a traffic light on Maryland Route 140, after Shoppers requested it, Wise said. Later that year, he talked with officials about relocating a Motor Vehicle Administration office at Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore to make way for Shoppers and then asked for state funds to help pay the store's rent there.
Currie also won support for a year-long delay in new energy requirements, to the benefit of Shoppers, facilitated conversations about obtaining state land for the company, and worked to reroute traffic at a shopping development in Prince George's County.
Each defendant faces bribery-related charges, and Currie and White are additionally accused of lying to FBI agents.
Treem, Small's attorney, called the accusations "wishful thinking" by prosecutors. Zucker described the defendants as living the "American dream" by rising up from less fortunate beginnings. He asked jurors to imagine the "hurtful" and "humiliating" trial process.
"To have to sit in a court room and listen to people calling them criminal," Zucker said, is "frankly unjust."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun