It will take weeks for a federal jury to hear the evidence and determine whether state Sen. Ulysses Currie's five years of paid advocacy on behalf of Shoppers Food Warehouse was criminal or just bad judgment. It is impossible to guess how that case, which begins today, will play out in the courtroom, but it is all too easy to imagine how the trial could diminish the stature of the General Assembly in the eyes of the public. It is important for voters to understand that whether Mr. Currie's conduct was illegal or not, it was far from business as usual for a citizen legislature.
Mr. Currie's attorney has indicated that he will seek to portray the senator's actions on behalf of Shoppers as part of a continuum of conflicts of interest routinely faced by Maryland's part-time lawmakers, most of whom have jobs outside the legislature. But there is a crucial difference between what Mr. Currie did and what is the normal intersection of lawmakers' public and private lives, and that is disclosure. Mr. Currie failed to disclose either to the public or to the government officials he was lobbying that he was on the Shoppers payroll, and that puts his actions clearly on the wrong side of an ethical line.
Mr. Currie took nearly a quarter-million dollars from Shoppers over a five-year period to advocate on its behalf. He met with representatives of state agencies to help his employer and sent memos on his Senate letterhead pleading its case. But he did not mention his professional relationship with the grocery chain in the financial disclosure statements he and other public officials are required to file, and he did not disclose his employment to the state officials he was lobbying. So far as the bureaucrats at the State Highway Administration were concerned, for example, Mr. Currie's push for road improvements near Shoppers stores was simply a case of a legislator taking a strong interest in the affairs of a business in his district. But they might have looked on his requests quite differently if they knew he was acting out of his own financial interest.
That is fundamentally different from, say, the case of a legislator who is a teacher in his private life advocating on behalf of education funding, or a legislator who owns a small business arguing against a sales tax increase. There is even some value to lawmakers bringing their personal knowledge and experience to bear on their work. The difference is that in those cases, their colleagues and the voters who put them in office are all aware of the potential conflict of interest; in Mr. Currie's case, they were not.
Whatever happens in the federal courthouse, the General Assembly needs to take steps to make clear to the public that Mr. Currie's conduct was not acceptable and is not the general rule for legislators in Annapolis. So far, they have done a terrible job of that. Mr. Currie is well liked and respected by his colleagues, and perhaps that is the reason he has faced no censure whatsoever from his peers in the three years since his involvement with Shoppers first became public. Only this year did he step down from the chairmanship of the Budget and Taxation Committee, and that was a voluntary decision on his part so that he could focus on his upcoming trial. He has not seen so much as a mild rebuke for his failure to file correct financial disclosure statements.
The legislature has chosen to wait until after Mr. Currie's criminal case is concluded to decide whether to take any internal action, and that is a mistake. It not only goes against the General Assembly's own precedent in the case of former Sen. Larry Young (who was expelled from the Senate amid a corruption scandal only to be found not guilty in a later criminal trial), but it has allowed a damaging perception to take hold that pay-to-play politics rules in Annapolis. No matter what Mr. Currie's legal status is come January when the General Assembly reconvenes, legislators need to conduct their own investigation and disciplinary hearings. They would also be wise to take steps to increase the transparency of the potential for conflict between legislators' public duties and private employment by posting their financial disclosure statements on the Internet. If they continue doing nothing, Mr. Currie's defense that ethics in Annapolis are a fuzzy line is likely to be the only thing the public remembers.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun