Md. power elite close ranks around Currie

The No. 2 Democrat in the House of Representatives called Ulysses S. Currie a "decent, honest person." A former governor said he is "a gentleman." And Maryland's lieutenant governor described him as a "man of strong integrity."

It was an outpouring fit for an awards ceremony or fundraising dinner. In this case, however, the remarks about the Maryland state senator were delivered from the witness stand at Currie's bribery trial in U.S. District Court.

Politicians elsewhere might be reluctant to stand up for an official accused of corruption. Not here. There is a tradition in Annapolis of standing by a colleague under fire — at least until a verdict is in, sometimes even after a conviction.

"They don't turn against their own," said Donald T. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In other states, "the standards and the expectations are much, much higher," he said, citing Oregon and Washington, among others.

In Maryland one of the bluest states in the nation officials might perceive that there is little risk at the ballot box. Moreover, the state's history of corruption seems to have made voters less sensitive to ethical lapses, political observers say. Over the past 50 years, major figures have been involved in state political scandals, including Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, forced out of office in a bribery case dating to his days as Baltimore County executive, and former Gov. Marvin Mandel, who went to prison in a mail fraud and racketeering case but whose conviction was later overturned.

"People's ideas of what is normal in politics evolves," said Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.

He listed New Jersey, Illinois and Louisiana as places where voters are scandal-hardened and cynical and believe ethical lapses to be business as usual. In such an environment, standing up for a fellow lawmaker on trial isn't going to cause trouble, he said.

That voters don't mind "is a sign of a bad culture," Gaines said. "That is not what we want."

Four of Maryland's leading elected Democratic officials — Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Reps. Steny H. Hoyer and Elijah E. Cummings, and state Sen. Brian E. Frosh — made headlines in the past two weeks when they appeared in Baltimore as character witnesses for Currie. Even former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, had nice to things to say.

The mix includes current and aspiring Maryland power brokers. Brown is on a short list of potential gubernatorial contenders in 2014. Cummings is often mentioned as a possible successor to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. Frosh, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has a reputation as one of Maryland's most earnest lawmakers. Hoyer, the House minority whip, is one of the most powerful Democrats in the country.

Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat, is accused of taking $245,000 in bribes from Shoppers Food Warehouse in exchange for using his influence as chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee in Annapolis to push legislation favorable to the supermarket and open doors to top officials spanning two administrations. After being indicted, Currie stepped down as committee chairman to focus on his defense, but he is still a member of the panel.

Currie's defense attorneys acknowledge that the arrangement with Shoppers presented a conflict of interest — the senator never disclosed the relationship on state ethics forms — but contend that his work as a paid consultant does not constitute bribery. The trial has been under way since late September and is expected to go to a jury this week.

Annapolis has seen a number of corruption cases over the years featuring defendants who have not been treated as pariahs.

Mandel, a Democrat, was convicted in 1977 and spent 19 months in federal prison. But President Ronald Reagan pardoned him in 1981, and his conviction was later overturned. Mandel returned to Maryland political circles, and Ehrlich — who called him "an elder statesman" — appointed him to the university system's Board of Regents.

More recently, state Sen. Larry Young, a Baltimore Democrat, was charged in 1998 with using his public position to enrich his private businesses. Maryland senators took what was for them an extraordinary action — they voted to expel Young from the Senate, the first lawmaker in two centuries to be ousted from the body.

Young was later found not guilty in court and now hosts a morning radio show on WOLB-AM.

Seven years later, former state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, was allowed to keep his $192,000 state job as head of the Maryland Injured Workers' Insurance Fund for more than a year after he was indicted in 2005 for his role in a bid-rigging scheme.

The board eventually paid him $400,000 to step down in December 2006, about a year before he pleaded guilty to accepting payoffs from a Baltimore construction company executive. Bromwell is now in federal prison, serving a seven-year term.

Some of the state's top lobbyists have criminal records involving public corruption. Bruce C. Bereano remains influential despite a 1994 conviction for mail fraud. Gerard E. Evans, who was convicted in June 2000 of defrauding clients and spent 21/2 years in prison, was the third-most-highly-paid lobbyist in Annapolis last year.

Evans' case famously caused a federal judge to decry the "culture of corruption" in Maryland's capital.

Gaines, of the University of Illinois, noted that elected officials tend to be particularly sympathetic to colleagues in cases that involve a "complicated financial scandal" that will be difficult for people to quickly grasp. He noted that "the lack of competitive districts" minimizes concerns that politicians facing tough races would have.

On the stand in federal court last week, none was more supportive than Brown. The lieutenant governor called Currie "a man of strong integrity and conviction and beliefs."

The two have a long history. Brown, who like Currie is from Prince George's County, managed Currie's 1994 state Senate campaign. Four years later, Brown ran for the House of Delegates — and won — as a member of Currie's ticket. They stayed close, Brown testified, noting that Currie was invited to the christening of Brown's daughter.

Brown, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Looking ahead to a possible future race for governor, Patrick Gonzales, a Maryland pollster, predicted that Maryland voters would not punish Brown, no matter what happens in Currie's trial. "I don't think human beings are going to hold it against someone for sticking up for a friend," Gonzales said.

"If Anthony Brown does not become governor in 2014, it is not going to be because he testified for Currie," Gonzales said. "If an opponent is going to spend a lot of energy and time and resources because [Brown] went on the stand and testified on behalf of his friend, that opponent is wasting his time and energy."

Also, Gonzales noted, the election is two years away. "This would have faded into the recesses," he said.

He said the same goes for Cummings, who represents Baltimore, Baltimore County and Howard County. Under oath, Cummings called Currie a "straight-shooter" and "an honest guy" and "a person I expect to tell the truth." Cummings served in the General Assembly with Currie before being elected to Congress.

Part of the reason politicians feel comfortable testifying, says James Browning of the political watchdog group Common Cause, is that with rare exception, Democrats for decades have been the ruling party in Annapolis. That reduces the potency of criticism from Republicans, he said.

"The Democrats have been in charge for so long and the Republicans are so weak," said Browning, a regional director for Common Cause. "There is an overconfidence on the part of the Democrats and an underconfidence on the part of Republicans who think that they aren't going to help themselves by talking about ethics."

In Maryland, Democrats control 98 of 141 seats in the House of Delegates and 35 of 47 seats in the state Senate. Last year, in one of the best years for Republicans nationally, Gov. Martin O'Malley coasted to re-election, beating Ehrlich by a 14-point margin. Ehrlich's single term as governor from 2003 to 2007 was the first Republican win for that office in a generation.

In coming to Currie's defense, Ehrlich was circumspect. He testified that Currie was "very honest," but made clear that when he was governor, it was his staff who dealt with legislators such as Currie on a day-to-day basis.

After testifying, Ehrlich seemed relieved to be finished.

"First time I ever did this," Ehrlich told reporters. "Hopefully the last. … It is nothing that you look forward to."

Asked whether testifying might pose a risk for politicians who will face Maryland voters, Ehrlich said: "Little causes political risk for Democrats in the state of Maryland."

There appears to be another reason that politicians are willing to take a risk, however minor, to support Currie: He's genuinely well regarded in the State House.

Frosh, in an interview after testifying, said that while Currie made "some mistakes," he believes the 74-year-old senator, who suffers from prostate cancer, should not go to jail.

D. Bruce Poole, a former state delegate who served on the General Assembly's ethics committee, said it is notable that officials from various political factions are standing up for Currie. In other scandals, "the usual good ol' boys" protect the accused, he said, but support is not always widespread.

"If [Currie] was known as a guy who was quick to cut a deal and be on the edge, people would say, 'Hey, it caught up with him,'" Poole said. "Instead they are saying, 'Damn it, he did so many good things, what a way to end up.'"