What does it take to get a bribery conviction in Maryland? State Sen. Ulysses Currie, who took a quarter-million dollars from a grocery store chain to advocate on its behalf, and who told no one about the arrangement, was just found not guilty on several counts of bribery by a federal jury in Baltimore. Apparently, corrupt public officials need not take paper bags of cash under the table anymore; they can just get their lucre by direct deposit. If this is to become the new standard in Maryland, a lot of lobbyists are about to be out of a job. Why bother hiring them when corporations can simply put lawmakers on the payroll?
What Mr. Currie did, and so far has completely gotten away with, is to use his public power to further his private interests. The Prince George's County Democrat, who until recently chaired the Budget and Taxation Committee, entered into a consulting contract with the grocery chain Shoppers Food Warehouse and proceeded to advocate on its behalf with various government agencies. He set up meetings through his Senate office and wrote memos about Shoppers' concerns on his state letterhead, but he never disclosed the fact that he was on the company's payroll, either to his colleagues or in his annual ethics filings.
If that doesn't give the people of Maryland enough of a sour feeling about our state government, the treatment of Mr. Currie by his colleagues surely should. During the last several weeks, a who's who of Maryland politics went to the federal courthouse in Baltimore to testify on Mr. Currie's behalf. Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown testified that Mr. Currie was "a man of strong integrity." Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House of Representatives, said he was "a decent, honest person." State Sen. Brian E. Frosh and Rep. Elijah Cummings both testified to his good character. Even former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, stuck up for him.
Mr. Currie's defense, that he was sloppy or careless or forgetful, may have impressed the jurors, but it should not have impressed those we send to Annapolis to exercise good judgment on our behalf. Mr. Currie was well liked by his peers, and that evidently has been enough for them to overlook blatant violations of the public trust. The fact that so many were willing to stand by him doesn't make them loyal friends. It makes them blind to an overly chummy culture in which ethics are an afterthought.
In the annals of Annapolis corruption, there is something particularly brazen about Mr. Currie's conduct. Mr. Currie even reported the income to the IRS. Yet unlike in the case of former state Sen. Larry Young, who was ejected from the General Assembly before he was even brought to trial (and, incidentally, regardless of the fact that he was eventually found not guilty), the state Senate has made no official statement whatsoever about Mr. Currie's conduct. It has not investigated the matter, and he has not been censured in any way. He was allowed to keep his committee chairmanship, only to relinquish it voluntarily this year so he could focus on preparing his defense.
The difference is that Mr. Young was not popular among his colleagues, and Mr. Currie is. That is an exceptionally poor justification for tolerating unethical behavior.
The party line in the State House was that they were waiting for Mr. Currie's criminal case to unfold before taking action of their own. Now that is done, and legislators need to decisively repudiate their colleague. Mr. Currie had the opportunity to present his defense, and nothing that was said on his behalf suggests he is fit to hold a seat in the state Senate. He did not testify, but those who did were only able to muster the claim that he was too incompetent to be corrupt — hardly a justification for his continued membership in the legislature.
Mr. Currie's conduct, and the parade of public officials who have been speaking up on his behalf, casts a pall on the entire state government. The first order of business when the Senate returns to Annapolis in January should be his removal from the General Assembly. There should be an explicit public record of which members of the Senate consider his behavior unacceptable.
But it should not stop there. The state can and must do more to emphasize the importance of financial disclosure and the avoidance of conflicts of interest.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has offered a good example for the state to follow with a proposed local law that spells out penalties for late or incomplete ethics filings (which state law does not include) and calls for financial disclosure forms to be published on the Internet. The forms for state legislators and other employees are kept in the state Ethics Commission's office in Annapolis, and the commission is required to keep a list of the names and addresses of those who look at the forms. Upon request, it forwards the names of those who have examined the disclosures to the public officials in question. That's hardly open and transparent.
The facts in Mr. Currie's case have never been in dispute, and the Senate should not have waited so long to bring him to account. Now a jury has concluded that what he did does not amount to criminal activity — but it is still wrong. The public deserves a legislature that holds itself to a higher standard than legal guilt or innocence. If we are to have any confidence that Mr. Currie's conduct is not standard operating procedure in Annapolis, the Senate must act swiftly and decisively, and nothing short of his removal from the legislature and an overhaul of ethics laws will do.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun