Currie kept Shoppers ties secret, according to former transportation secretary

Maryland Sen. Ulysses S. Currie warned former Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan in 2006 that he "would need friends in the Senate," then urged the embattled agency head to issue a $2 million grant for a pet project, Flanagan said in federal court Monday.

Flanagan's job was on the line at the time — the result of a bill sponsored by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, with whom he famously clashed, and other legislators including Currie. But Currie now seemed to be offering him a safety net, Flanagan testified, and he began looking into whether the grant would be appropriate.

What he didn't know was that the Prince George's County senator was acting on behalf of Shoppers Food Warehouse, which wanted the government to pay the cost of road improvements at a marketplace, prosecutors said.

"I understood he was acting as a state senator and chairman of the [Budget and Taxation] Committee," Flanagan said.

Currie and two Shoppers executives are in their second week of trial for an alleged bribery and extortion scheme supposedly hidden beneath a "community relations" consulting contract. Federal prosecutors claim that Shoppers gave Currie nearly a quarter of a million dollars over five years in exchange for legislative favors, including trying to obtain funds for projects in Prince George's County and at Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore.

Flanagan, who said he had a good relationship with Currie, testified that he was approached at least twice about undertakings that could help Shoppers, though he didn't realize the supermarket giant was behind the projects.

Had he known of Currie's ties with Shoppers, "I would have been personally concerned," Flanagan said, adding later that he "would have recognized a conflict of interest and behaved differently."

He also said that in 2003, after then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. appointed Flanagan to the transportation post, Currie organized a meeting to discuss moving a Motor Vehicle Administration facility from its spot at Mondawmin Mall to make way for Shoppers.

Currie said he was "taking this issue under his wing" both "out of respect for" and "on behalf of" the late Del. Howard P. Rawlings, who had long wanted a grocery store in this underserved section of Baltimore, Flanagan said.

He said Currie never mentioned his Shoppers' tie, and Flanagan said he assumed Currie was involved because it was an "issue of state importance." Currie wanted his support, Flanagan said, to give the matter weight.

"My presence sent a message to the people who were working on behalf of the state" that the Ehrlich administration was behind the push for a grocery store, Flanagan said.

Flanagan and Currie have known each other since the mid-1980s, when both were legislators in the state's House of Delegates.

"I always had the highest regards for Senator Currie. He was a true gentleman," Flanagan said. Once Flanagan became transportation secretary, he said, Currie always gave him a "fair shake" and "looked at issues on the merits."

Flanagan said they stayed friendly even after Miller submitted Senate Bill 1075 — also known as the "Flanagan Bill" — in 2006. It required gubernatorial appointments to be reappointed and reconfirmed by the Senate if a governor wins a second term. Flanagan said it was aimed at ousting him.

"Miller indicated that he was upset with me," Flanagan testified.

When Currie suggested that he would need "friends in the Senate" because of the bill, Flanagan said he took that to mean Currie might be able to help, though he was skeptical.

"I didn't really think there was anything that Senator Currie could do," he said.

It turned out the grant Currie suggested wasn't something the transportation department would typically provide to a "big box" retailer, and Flanagan said he let it drop.

"I never actually said 'no,'" Flanagan testified, but "I had no problem not saying 'yes.'"

The "Flanagan Bill" passed both houses but was vetoed by Ehrlich. It was brought back later that year during a special session, but the General Assembly failed to override the veto. Flanagan left his post in early 2007, after Gov. Martin O'Malley took office.

It was unclear whether Flanagan knew that Currie was one of the sponsors of the bill. Flanagan appeared surprised when a prosecutor pointed it out Monday.