Bribery or business as usual?

State Sen. Ulysses Currie, chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, is innocent until proven guilty — but his day in court is finally coming. Last week, the results of a lengthy federal investigation came to fruition: a 48-page indictment charging him with taking nearly a quarter-million dollars in bribes to use his influence on behalf of the Shoppers Food & Pharmacy chain.

That Mr. Currie worked diligently on behalf of Shoppers is unlikely to be in dispute. Nor is the money involved, which wasn't presented to him as cash in an envelope but as a consultant's paycheck. Thus, the trial is likely to turn on intent: Was he just an employee who is also an influential politician attentive to the needs of a constituent in his district that also just happens to be his employer — or was it all a device to allow a quid pro quo?

Democrats in Annapolis should be mortified by all this. If it's not criminal behavior, it's at rock-bottom minimum an egregious example of conflict of interest, the sort of thing that should get someone stripped of leadership standing. Yet Mr. Currie, 73, a courtly and widely liked figure in the Senate, has been treated well. He retained his post for two years after the circumstances that prompted the investigation were known, stepping down just last week to work on his legal defense.

Yet mostly what one hears out of the legislature is how fuzzy the lines of ethics can be and how everyone tries their best and, well, these things happen. What a load of Eastern Shore poultry litter. Connecting the dots between taking money from private interests and then providing them special services (pushing agencies to take certain actions that are in their direct financial advantage, for instance) is child's play. But first, the politician involved has got to want to see the line.

Perhaps Republicans may seize on this issue in an election year, but don't expect much of a stir. Maryland politicians have learned that voters have limited interest in political scandal. We live in an era when a disgraced former governor, a 19-month resident of what is now the Allenwood Federal Correctional Complex, is treated as a revered elder statesman in the state capital. Marvin Mandel (whose conviction was overturned on a technicality) recently produced a book repeating his long-held claim that he did nothing illegal while in office, a rewrite of history that nobody in the State House bothered to dispute.

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