We don't need to wait for the absentee ballots to be counted before officially declaring incumbent state Sen. Ulysses Currie the winner in the Democratic primary for the 25th District. For that matter, no need to wait for November's general election before declaring him the victor in that contest, too. Mr. Currie is facing a federal indictment on bribery charges in which prosecutors say he took $250,000 over five years from a grocery chain, Shoppers Food & Pharmacy, to use the powers of his office to gain favorable consideration for the company, all without disclosing the arrangement to anyone. But the voters of Prince George's County can't be blamed for sending him back to office — they didn't have a choice; he is running unopposed.
On the eve of the primary, a federal judge agreed to a deal in which Shoppers will avoid prosecution in exchange for paying a $2.5 million fine and cooperating in the prosecution of Mr. Currie. In Monday's proceeding, U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett said he hopes to bring the case to trial in June. That, coupled with the senator's pro forma re-election, means he will continue to sit in the legislature during its 90 day session next year despite the legal cloud that hangs over him, and without any serious admonishment from Senate leadership. True, Mr. Currie will step down this year as chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, but the move was couched by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller as a voluntary one on the senator's part. Furthermore, Mr. Miller expressed full confidence in Mr. Currie.
The Democratic senator is innocent of the criminal charges until proven guilty. But the state Senate is able to hold itself to a higher standard of conduct than criminal guilt or innocence, and, in fact, it has done so before. In December, 1997, The Sun published a series of articles questioning the business dealings of then-Sen. Larry Young. Within six weeks, the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics had investigated the matter and issued a scathing report about his activities, concluding that he and companies he controlled had received some $250,000 — coincidentally, the same amount Senator Currie received — from health care companies doing business with the state. In some cases, he never did any work for them. Days later, the Senate voted to expel him.
A federal grand jury would not indict Mr. Young in a criminal proceeding for another 11 months, and in that case, he was eventually found not guilty. The former senator has long claimed that he was treated unfairly by the Senate and punished much more harshly than other legislators for lapses of judgment. With its treatment of Mr. Currie, the Senate is proving his point.
The basic facts of Mr. Currie's case have been known for two years and are not in dispute. He took tens of thousands of dollars a year from Shoppers and used the resources and prestige of his office to work on the company's behalf to get favorable consideration for the chain from state agencies. Unlike Mr. Young, Senator Currie did do actual work on behalf of his employer — he actually compiled a document for the company called "Accomplishments on Behalf of Shoppers" that listed a dozen regulatory or legislative actions he had helped with.
The legal case against Mr. Currie will hinge on whether prosecutors can prove intent, a key component of a bribery charge. But the ethical case against Mr. Currie requires nothing more than a conclusion that he took money from a private employer, did not report it, and lobbied state agencies on that company's behalf without disclosing the relationship. That is unacceptable, whether it turns out to be criminal or not.
So far, the Senate has taken the stance that it will defer to the legal proceedings against Mr. Currie, but that is an abdication of its responsibility to ensure that those who make our laws follow the highest standards. The vision of an indicted senator continuing to wield influence and cast votes, unquestioned by his peers, diminishes the Senate as an institution and sends a terribly cynical message to the public. The legislature needs to launch its own investigation of Mr. Currie's activities — irrespective of the criminal proceedings — and consider whether censure or expulsion is appropriate. Anything else would be inconsistent and irresponsible.