State Sen. Ulysses Currie is entitled to have copies of materials seized from his home during an FBI raid in May, as well as the search warrant affidavit filed by the U.S. attorney's office, federal Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm ruled yesterday.
Currie, a Prince George's Democrat who is chairman of the General Assembly's Budget and Taxation Committee, is under federal investigation in connection with his ties to Lanham-based Shoppers Food and Pharmacy, with whom he was employed as a consultant.
Currie's attorney, Dale Kelberman, declined to be interviewed as he left the Baltimore courthouse yesterday. U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein also declined to comment on the case yesterday.
The Sun reported yesterday that Currie intervened several times in recent years on behalf of the grocery store chain when it was seeking public financing and other concessions as part of the multimillion-dollar redevelopment of Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore. Currie did not disclose his employment by Shoppers in General Assembly ethics forms, and state and city officials he lobbied on the grocery chain's behalf said they weren't aware of it.
Supervalu Inc., the grocery store chain's parent company, has confirmed that Currie worked for the company, but officials have declined to say when.
The federal investigation came to light in May when the FBI carried out simultaneous raids on Currie's District Heights home and Shoppers' Lanham headquarters. Since then, several state agencies have been served grand-jury subpoenas, including the Department of Business and Economic Development, the Department of Legislative Services, the Maryland Transit Administration, the State Highway Administration and the Motor Vehicle Administration.
Though federal authorities have declined to discuss their strategy, emerging details about the case have all the hallmarks of a mail or wire fraud investigation, former federal prosecutors and white-collar criminal attorneys said yesterday. The Maryland U.S. attorney's office used that kind of investigation against former state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, who was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison. He began serving that sentence this week.
Under federal criminal law, prosecutors have wide latitude to bring fraud charges against state officials, if the alleged fraud involved the use of U.S. mail, phone, radio or television.
Any "scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false and fraudulent purposes" is punishable by up to 20 years in prison, according to federal law. The federal statute defines "scheme or artifice" as an attempt "to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services" - which is how federal prosecutors can go after conflicts of interest by state officials, said Andrew C. White, a former federal prosecutor who is now a white-collar defense attorney with Baltimore's Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin and White.
The "honest services" definition, expanded into the fraud statute by Congress in the late 1980s, "has unleashed the federal government into what might be typically considered state-level proceedings, and the courts have affirmed the power of the federal government to prosecute state officials who are operating under ethical conflicts," White said.
Andrew D. Levy, a Baltimore defense attorney who specializes in state and federal litigation, said prosecutors would have a significant burden in such an investigation. They would have to prove that Currie intended to defraud the citizens of Maryland by using the influence of his office to gain material benefits for himself and his client.
'Appetite' and guilt
News of Currie's intervention on Shoppers' behalf at Mondawmin "would certainly be sufficient to whet a prosecutor's appetite ... but there's a long way between that and guilt," Levy said.
White said that Currie's attorneys would likely argue that he never intended to deprive anyone of his "honest services" and that, moreover, he was acting in his constituents' interest. But the fact that Currie neglected to disclose his employment with Shoppers might arouse a jury's suspicions, White said.
"If he's participating in an act that includes public funding or favors being given to people like Shoppers, he has to disclose the fact that he's being paid by them," White said. "He has to, because if he doesn't disclose it, you can absolutely draw the logical inference ... that he doesn't want it known."
In a related development, the transportation department announced yesterday that it would release documents related to Currie and the investigation Monday. In addition to Mondawmin - where the MVA's Baltimore branch is located - Currie has gotten involved in other state business concerning Shoppers and transportation-related development.
Currie and Shoppers
He apparently asked state highway officials in 2005 to expedite a traffic-light project near a shopping center where the grocery chain planned to open a store, according to an e-mail from State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen. And in 2006, Currie attended meetings during which Washington Metro officials, Prince George's County officials and Shoppers representatives discussed the possible commercial development of an area near the West Hyattsville Metro station.
Also in 2005, the Prince George's delegation, which included Currie, sponsored a bill that facilitated the transfer of a liquor license from one Shoppers store to another.
Was to have met Dixon
Documents from a state investigation of Mayor Sheila Dixon indicate that Currie was scheduled to meet with the then-City Council president and prominent developer Ronald H. Lipscomb in February 2004, the same period when Currie was meeting with city and state officials about the Mondawmin project.
However, Dixon's schedule "indicates that the scheduled meeting with Currie and Lipscomb never happened," said Sterling Clifford, the mayor's spokesman. He said Dixon does not remember the reason the meeting was scheduled.