State Sen. Ulysses Currie may have walked out of Baltimore's federal courthouse Tuesday a free man, but it was hardly the clean sweep that the jurors' verdict of not guilty on all counts might indicate.
Jurors said after emerging from the courthouse that there seemed to be a conflict of interest or unethical behavior stemming from Currie's dual roles as Shoppers Food Warehouse's man in Annapolis at the same time that he chaired the Senate's powerful Budget and Taxation Committee. But they stopped short of convicting him of a federal crime.
And that, ladies and gentlemen of the jury of public opinion, is what we're left with after a trial in which a public official was paid to do a private company's bidding and yet is found not guilty of bribery, conspiracy and extortion charges.
These are very serious charges, but also very hard to prove or even get to trial. You don't have to have that long of a memory to remember the bribery charge dismissed against Baltimore City Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, who had solicited and received $12,500 from two developers who had business before the council's taxation and finance committee that she chaired at the time.
In Currie's case, the bribery charges made it to the courtroom, although jurors would find that, as juror Steven Cason said afterward, the evidence presented didn't "make the case."
Federal prosecutors presented several examples — a veritable grocery list, you might say — of what Shoppers wanted from the state government: traffic lights, public funds and a liquor license transfer, among them, to benefit Shoppers stores from Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore to College Park. Prosecutors offered witnesses and evidence showing that Currie ticked off one project after another, calling meetings with Cabinet secretaries, department heads and other top state government officials in order to deliver.
But here's the problem: Currie didn't disclose to those officials that he was calling them as a paid consultant to Shoppers. Rather, he was calling as Senator Currie, known and even feared in Annapolis as a key holder of the purse strings in Annapolis.
As a former state highway chief wrote in a departmental memo that was entered as evidence, it was "critical" to expedite Currie's request for a review of a traffic light for one store because the agency had its budget, staffing levels and important legislation currently before his committee.
Even as they found Currie not guilty, though, a couple of jurors I spoke with afterward expressed discomfort with what they called questionable ethical issues raised by the case. Currie did not disclose his role as a Shoppers consultant — for which he was paid almost $250,000 — on state ethics forms. These forms seem to be ignored regularly by some politicians, yet the failure to disclose generally isn't discovered until after a criminal investigation is launched.
I asked Currie as he left the courthouse why he didn't disclose this, but he didn't answer as his lawyer hustled him away.
In any event, this failure to disclose was not among the charges in the case. Jurors said they limited themselves to what was before them, as instructed. And, in fact, the judge in the case lauded them for how attentive they were to what was a complicated case of multiple defendants and a range of charges.
Cason, 55, of Freeland, said he thought Currie "clearly" had a conflict of interest working both privately for Shoppers and publicly in the legislature, but that was not for the jury to decide.
"That was something for Annapolis," he said.
Yes, it is.