Federal prosecutors suggested through witness testimony Thursday that state Sen. Ulysses Currie secured legislation for Shoppers Food & Pharmacy by slipping it in at the last minute during the 2005 General Assembly session, when it was less likely to receive scrutiny from the public and other lawmakers.
Del. Dereck E. Davis testified that an amendment transferring a beer-and-wine license from a Takoma Park Shoppers store to one in College Park was added to an unrelated bill at Currie's request, just days before the legislature was to vote on it.
The change "did not seem like a big deal," said Davis, a Prince George's County Democrat who chairs a government committee that oversees alcoholic beverages, adding that he tried to help the senator whenever he could. But when pressed by prosecutors, he acknowledged that the amendment may not have been thoroughly examined.
"In the final days of the session, things can get hectic," Davis said, "and it's not uncommon for a member to have missed what was going on."
The revelation came during the close of the second week of Currie's trial on bribery and extortion charges. He's accused of taking $245,000 from Shoppers — disguised as a "community relations" consulting contract — in exchange for legislative favors.
Currie and his two co-defendants, both Shoppers executives, have denied the charges. And so far, many of the government's witnesses have appeared reluctant to testify against the well-liked senator.
Davis said he looked to Currie for guidance when launching his political career, and former Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan testified earlier in the week that Currie was a "gentleman."
John A. Giannetti Jr., an Annapolis attorney and former state senator who also testified Thursday, was seemingly so sympathetic to Currie that Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Gavin appeared hostile toward him.
She pointed out that Giannetti missed an appointment to prepare for his trial testimony, cut another appointment short, failed to return multiple calls from an FBI agent and reported to Currie's defense team about the substance of his conversations with the government.
Giannetti, who served one term as a senator, said he had once hoped to make a mentor out of Currie, and offered to help introduce the liquor license amendment if needed. He also countered earlier testimony that suggested Currie kept his consultant relationship with Shoppers' quiet. Currie never reported the contract on legislative ethics forms, as required, his lawyers acknowledge.
"He was very open to talk to me about it," Giannetti said, adding later that he was surprised so many people claimed not to know. "It wasn't something that was kept as a secret."
Etiquette keeps lawmakers from fishing for details about their colleagues' outside employment, Giannetti said, but everyone is still interested. Maryland's legislature is part time, and most of the lawmakers — who are paid a salary of $43,500 ($53,500 for presiding officers) — work elsewhere when the General Assembly is not in session.
"You sort of dance around the issue," Giannetti said.
In grand jury testimony several years ago, Giannetti said Currie could have been more "forthcoming" about his relationship with Shoppers. He said Thursday that the answer followed a "browbeating" from Gavin, who questioned him during that 2008 proceeding as well.
Currie's attorney, Assistant Federal Public Defender Joseph Evans, said Currie was a "private person" who kept his business to himself. He had also suggested, when Davis was on the stand, that it might have been another legislator who wanted the amendment passed, rather than Currie.
The claim caused U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett to shout "objection" from the bench, characterizing the statements as "pure conjecture." He later apologized to the courtroom and blamed his outburst on "old trial instincts."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun