Disgrace in the Senate

In using his public office for private gain, Sen. Ulysses Currie disgraced the Maryland Senate. Today, in rendering its final judgment on that offense, the Senate has disgraced itself. The upper chamber of the Maryland General Assembly voted unanimously to censure Senator Currie for failing to disclose his paid work on behalf of Shoppers Food Warehouse. He loses any possibility of ever regaining his committee chairmanship or climbing the ranks of the Democratic leadership, but those sanctions are meaningless. By failing to remove Mr. Currie from among their ranks, his colleagues, Democrats and Republicans alike, have diminished the standing of the body they serve.

What makes the result so galling is that Senator Currie evidently still doesn't fully appreciate the gravity of what he did. Standing on the Senate floor, Mr. Currie issued a non-apology apology: He told his fellow senators he was sorry that they had "to concern [themselves] with the findings and the conclusions in the ethics committee's report," and he added, "I am a person with flaws, and I do have weaknesses. I never intended to do anything that would bring dishonor to you, my wife or me." He promised never to do it again, but he never clearly articulated any understanding of what he had done wrong.

(A particularly galling touch: Among the wrongs the ethics committee found that Mr. Currie had committed was to vote on legislation in which he had a personal interest, which he managed to do again moments after his mea culpla when he joined his 46 colleagues in voting for his own censure.)

In its report, the legislature's ethics committee found that Senator Currie had known that it was only his position as a senator and chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee that had enabled him to get meetings with state officials to advocate on Shoppers' behalf. The committee found that he used his committee letterhead, staff, phones and fax machines to do work for his private employer. Yet they somehow bought the idea that his conduct was "not intentionally malicious or deceitful." How can that be?

The Senate's decorous handling of Senator Currie stands in stark contrast to the same body's treatment of similar offenses committed more than a decade ago by former Sen. Larry Young. He was expelled from the legislature with dizzying speed, but today no member of the Senate suggested the same fate for Mr. Currie. There wasn't even a moment of debate on the Senate floor about the appropriateness of the sanction. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that the punishment fits not the crime but the person. Mr. Currie is well liked by his peers and Mr. Young was not, and that made all the difference.

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