Ethics committee recommends Currie be censured

The ethics panel also urged senators to strip Sen. Ulysses Currie of all but one committee assignment and to bar him from any role in House-Senate negotiations to resolve differences over bills.
The ethics panel also urged senators to strip Sen. Ulysses Currie of all but one committee assignment and to bar him from any role in House-Senate negotiations to resolve differences over bills. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

The General Assembly's joint ethics committee has recommended unanimously that the Senate censure Sen. Ulysses Currie, once a powerful committee chairman, for failing to disclose that he was being paid to represent a grocery chain before state agencies.

In what would be the harshest action taken against a legislator since 1998, the ethics panel also urged senators to strip Currie "immediately and permanently" of all but one committee assignment and to bar him from any role in House-Senate negotiations to resolve differences over bills.

The committee action would let Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat, remain on the Budget and Taxation Committee but would further reduce his already diminished influence in the Senate. The panel also urged that Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller ask Currie to make a public apology for the "dishonor he has brought to the Maryland General Assembly."

Currie was acquitted of federal corruption charges late last year, but his trial exposed a series of violations of the General Assembly's rules on how members should conduct themselves and the financial information they are required to disclose.

The full Senate will take up the committee's report Friday morning, Miller said.

Currie, 74, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Censure is the second-strongest action the General Assembly can take against a member — harsher than a reprimand but short of expulsion. With the addition of the permanent ban on Currie's rising to a leadership position in the future, the sanctions fall just short of expulsion.

If the full Senate approves the recommendation, Currie would become the first senator to be disciplined since former Baltimore Sen. Larry Young was expelled in January 1998 for using his office for private gain.

The ethics committee laid out its findings in a toughly worded 25-page report detailing the conflicts of interest raised by Currie's paid work on behalf of Shoppers Food Warehouse. Among other things, it found that Currie voted on legislation in which he had a direct conflict of interest that should have led him to recuse himself.

"The joint committee has determined that Senator Currie used his title as senator and his position as chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee for his own private gain and the private gain of [Shoppers Food Warehouse]," it said. "The Joint Committee also finds that Senator Currie used public resources for the non-governmental purpose of performing services for his employer."

The report said Currie admitted in testimony to the panel that he knew it was his position as a committee chairman that opened doors for him to talk with agency officials on behalf of the grocery chain. Nevertheless, the panel concluded that Currie's actions were not "intentionally malicious or deceitful."

Common Cause Maryland, which had called for censure as the minimum punishment for Currie, said it was "gratified" by the panel's conclusion.

"The Senate must now act in way that shows Marylanders that it takes ethics enforcement seriously, and that when the rules are ignored, there are consequences," said Susan Wichmann, the watchdog group's executive director.

Currie was elected to the Senate in 1994 after serving two terms in the House of Delegates. As a freshman, he was assigned to the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee, which oversees the budget of every state agency.

In 2002, after the primary defeat of Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman of Baltimore, Currie succeeded to the chairmanship of the committee — a position that commands the attention of agency heads.

It was only months after that, in February 2003, that Currie signed an agreement to work as a paid consultant for Shoppers. Later that year, he sent a letter on Senate letterhead to the State Highway Administration advocating on the grocery chain's behalf for a traffic signal near a Baltimore County store.

During Currie's trial, prosecutors showed that Currie failed to list his relationship with Shoppers on his financial disclosure form during the six years he worked for the company. During those years, evidence showed, Currie met with high-ranking state officials on several occasions to advocate for actions sought by Shoppers.

Meanwhile, between 2003 and 2008 Currie collected more than $245,000 in consulting fees from Shoppers. The committee report says Currie told the panel his failure to file was the result of "negligence rather than intent."

By 2008, Currie's activities had come to the attention of the FBI, whose agents questioned him. Though the federal investigation was revealed about that time, Currie remained committee chairman until he was indicted in September 2010. He then stepped down and was succeeded by Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Democrat who represents Howard and Baltimore counties and who remains in that post.

A federal grand jury charged Currie with 18 counts of bribery, mail fraud and other offenses. Two Shoppers executives were also charged. Despite the investigation, Currie was re-elected in 2010 without meaningful opposition in either the primary or the general election.

When Currie went to trial last fall, prosecutors presented a series of witnesses who testified to Currie's interventions on behalf of Shoppers. They included former State Highway Administration chief Neil J. Pedersen, who told jurors Currie never told him that he was being compensated by Shoppers at a time when the senator was pushing for a stoplight on Reisterstown Road, far from Currie's district.

Currie's lawyers mounted an unusual defense that did little for the senator's reputation in Annapolis but apparently contributed to his acquittal. They presented witnesses who portrayed the senator as a likable but clueless legislator who didn't understand that what he was doing was wrong.

"On the smart [scale], he's right at the bottom," former Prince George's Del. Timothy F. Maloney told the jury. "On the nice [scale], he's right at the top."

The defense bolstered its case with a series of character witnesses, including Rep. Steny A. Hoyer and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, both Democrats, and former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican.

After a six-week trial and three days of deliberation, the jury found Currie not guilty on all counts last November. But in view of the admissions made at Currie's trial, Miller referred his case to the ethics committee — a body made up of six senators and six delegates with equal representation of Democrats and Republicans.

In its report, the committee took note of what it called Currie's "general disorganization and lack of attention to important details" in reaching its conclusion that his violations weren't malicious.

But the panel said that despite what it called "mitigating circumstances," Currie clearly violated the law and Assembly rules and "eroded the confidence and trust of the people and other governmental officials who work with legislators."

In addition to its findings about Currie, the committee urged the Senate president and House Speaker Michael E. Busch to require each lawmaker to have an annual meeting with the General Assembly's ethics adviser to go over tax returns. The panel also said the adviser should report to the presiding officers any members who fail to comply with that requirement.

Meanwhile, the committee found that Currie communicated with state officials in a way that would have required him to register as a lobbyist. The panel referred Currie's failure to do so to the State Ethics Commission, but stated that even if Currie had registered, it would not have made his actions proper.

"A member of the General Assembly cannot be a lobbyist and any violations of this prohibition will be vigorously enforced," the report states.

After Currie's acquittal, Miller did not restore him to his chairmanship. Instead of his former seat at the front and center of the Senate floor, Currie now occupies a position at the fringe of the chamber traditionally reserved for members with considerable seniority but little real influence.



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