A federal grand jury in Maryland has charged the chairman of the Senate's powerful budget panel and two former supermarket executives with bribery, extortion and other criminal offenses in an 18-count indictment.
In announcing the charges Wednesday, prosecutors said Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Democrat, had misused his influence for personal gain while helping Shoppers Food Warehouse expand in Maryland.
"Government officials cross a bright line when they accept payments in return for using the authority of their office, whether they take cash in envelopes or checks labeled as consulting payments," U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement.
"When businesses can obtain valuable government benefits by putting a senator on the payroll, it diminishes public confidence and disadvantages companies that refuse to go along with the pay-to-play approach."
Currie is 15-year veteran of the Senate and an ally of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. For the past eight years he has chaired the Budget and Taxation Committee, which oversees the state's $32 billion annual spending plan. He could not be reached immediately.
He filed for reelection in January and faces no opposition in the primary or general election.
The federal investigation became public when agents searched Currie's District Heights home in May 2008. The federal agents at that time alleged that Currie was paid $200,000 by Shoppers Food Warehouse over five years and did not disclose it on required ethics forms.
While receiving the payments, Currie supported legislation that would help the company, including a bill in 2005 that allowed the chain to transfer liquor licenses between locations, according to federal agents. He also pushed for state financial incentives that would help a Shoppers store at Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore.
Currie has been beset by other problems; he replaced his longtime campaign treasurer this month after filing an August 10 financial disclosure that showed $187,000 had been drained from the account with no explanation for how it was spent.
State Prosecutors have also been investigating Currie's campaign spending since he raised eyebrows by using his campaign account to pay Baltimore law firm Miles & Stockbridge for helping fend off the federal probe. Campaign funds are only supposed to be used for investigations that relate to campaign spending; and are not permitted to be used on investigations into the public duties of elected officials, according to the Attorney General's office.
Currie's fundraising has been lackluster, though it appears some in his party are rallying around him. He filed his most recent report days early, and it showed $5,534 contributions; including a check from for $2,595.92 from the Democratic Attorneys General Association and one for $2,438.43 from Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot.
Travis Berry, with the DAGA said Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler requested the funds to help pay for a sample ballot that supports all candidates in the district. Franchot's political director, Andrew Friedson, also said the comptroller's check was for that ballot. The three other delegates in Currie's district are Dereck Davis, Aisha Braveboy and Melony Griffith, all of whom are Democrats seeking reelection.
Currie's previous report showed he raised a mere $1,050 in the from January to August from four donors.
Currie was first elected to the General Assembly 24 years ago as a delegate representing Prince George's, and then ran successfully for the Senate in 1994.