The Maryland Board of Elections requested an investigation of Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee. The elections board is not satisfied with the campaign's explanation for $53,772 in expenditures, including $41,555.27 for legal fees first reported by The Baltimore Sun.
The payments piqued the board's interest because, by law, campaign funds can be used only to promote the "success or defeat of a candidate," according to Jared DeMarinis, director of the elections board.
Currie is also the target of a federal investigation into whether he used his influence to secure legislation favorable to a grocery chain based in his district without disclosing that he was a paid consultant for the company. No charges have been brought in that case.
Elected in 1994, Currie oversees the Senate committee responsible for the state's $32 billion budget. He was recently named as the chamber's fourth most powerful lawmaker, according to the Maryland Gazette of Politics and Business.
Currie did not return an e-mail or phone messages Wednesday seeking comment. His campaign treasurer, Olivia Harris, did not return a message.
After a routine audit of Currie's campaign account, the elections board requested the investigation in a letter to the state prosecutor dated April 12. Shelly Glenn, a senior assistant state prosecutor, confirmed that the office received the request but, citing office policy, declined to confirm whether a probe has been launched.
DeMarinis had written Currie's campaign organization March 2 seeking more information about some of its disbursements. The board questioned $9,159 in American Express payments, a $1,000 payment to a caterer, $500 paid to a speech coach, $500 for transportation for the Morgan State University Choir and $500 to a civic association active in his legislative district.
The campaign replied March 28, connecting some of the spending to events with potential voters, but failed to provide sufficient information to satisfy the board, DeMarinis said.
"When the review that has taken place shows the potential for issues with campaign finance laws, further investigation is definitely warranted," DeMarinis said.
The elections board asked state prosecutors to determine whether Currie made "impermissible disbursements or expenditures" of campaign money.
It also wants investigators to look at whether Currie's campaign improperly used an American Express card to make purchases, according to the letter. Campaigns are not allowed to have credit cards and are permitted to write checks only for individual items.
In a letter to the elections board, Harris acknowledged that the credit card is in the campaign's name, which "we now recognize is inappropriate." She wrote that the campaign intends to cancel the card.
Harris expressed surprise at some of the board's audit findings, noting, "I would like to point out that many of the expenditures questioned in your letter … have been reported in the same fashion on previous campaign finance reports."
The largest expenditure questioned by the board was $41,555 paid to defense attorney Dale P. Kelberman, despite a letter from the state's attorney general saying that Currie could use campaign funds for legal fees only if the investigation "relates to his campaign activities."
Harris defended the payment of the legal fees by saying the campaign has received subsequent advice from the attorney general's office and counsel advising that campaign money can be used because the federal probe has a sufficient connection to Currie's candidacy. In her letter to the elections board, she said the probe centers on whether Currie properly filled out disclosure forms that are similar to paperwork candidates are also required to submit.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Currie ally, has said he asked the senator about the second letter from the attorney general's office, but he has declined to make it public. The attorney general's office has also declined to release the second letter.
The federal investigation became widely known in May 2008 after federal agents searched Currie's home in District Heights. The federal agents alleged that Currie was paid $200,000 by Shoppers Food and Pharmacy over five years and did not disclose it on the ethics forms that all members of the General Assembly must complete.
The federal agents alleged that Currie received the payments at the same time that he was supporting legislation that would help the company, including a bill in 2005 that allowed the chain to transfer liquor licenses between locations. He pushed for the installation of traffic lights and roadside improvements near the grocery chain's store in Owings Mills and others, and sought financial incentives for a Shoppers store at Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore.
It is not unusual for a state senator to lobby on behalf of a large company in his or her district.
Currie's campaign released a ledger detailing the $9,159 in American Express charges that the elections board questioned. However, the documents did not include explanations about how the costs are connected to Currie's candidacy.
Electronic campaign filings show that Currie has reported a total of $91,945 in expenditures on his American Express card since January 1999. The board did not request details on all of the expenses.
American Express bills disclosed included $220 for a Hilton hotel room in September 2009, $939.50 for the Clarion Resort Hotel in August 2009 and $99.64 for the Greenbrier Hotel in July 2009. Those charges might be permissible if they are for political events, but the campaign did not provide information on the locations of the hotels or why the rooms were booked.
Currie spent $168.20 for a ticket on AirTran Airways, but included no details on where or why he traveled. Records also show the campaign paid $139.87 in late payment fees and finance charges to American Express.
Currie used campaign money to pay for dinners for his staff. A $195 meal at Pusser's Caribbean Grille in Annapolis was "in appreciation for work done for the constituents of District 25 citizens," Harris wrote. Another $105.62 was paid for food for staff members who worked on a Saturday during lengthy legislative hearings.
There were other unexplained expenditures at Borders, Target and the firm at the center of the federal probe. Currie's American Express bills show he used campaign funds for $25.88 in goods from Shoppers Food and Pharmacy.