Federal prosecutors said Tuesday that a prominent state senator sold the power of his office for more than $245,000 to help a grocery store chain over the years, though the lawmaker contends he was just helping store officials navigate state government and didn't do anything illegal.
Prince George's County Democrat Ulysses Currie is on trial on conspiracy, bribery, extortion and false statement charges. Mr. Currie worked as a consultant for Shoppers Food Warehouse for five years, and while he paid income taxes on the monthly checks he received he never reported his employment on state financial disclosure forms.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Gavin said in opening arguments that Shoppers paid Mr. Currie to use his power as chairman of a powerful Senate financial committee to try to reduce rent for the chain at a Baltimore shopping mall. She also said the chain paid him to help transfer a liquor license from one store to another, put two traffic lights near stores and move a state motor vehicle administration office to make way for a grocery store.
Mr. Currie's lawyers pointed out, however, that Shoppers didn't get one of the traffic lights, and the MVA office was not moved. The Legislature unanimously approved the liquor license transfer, a lawyer for the 74-year-old senator said.
Ms. Gavin outlined the charges against Mr. Currie, who after he was indicted last year, stepped down as chairman of the Senate committee that steers state spending. Ms. Gavin said Mr. Currie summoned state transportation officials to his office in Annapolis to meet with grocery store executives to discuss the chain's needs and how to achieve them.
"This is a case about a politician who took bribes," Ms. Gavin said.
Ms. Gavin also said Mr. Currie even compiled a list of "accomplishments on behalf of Shoppers" in order to justify larger payments, which rose from $3,800 a month to $7,600 a month.
"That's what Senator Currie got for using his office," Ms. Gavin said.
Lucius Outlaw, an attorney for Mr. Currie, noted that the senator told the Maryland General Assembly ethics counsel that he was going to work for the grocery store chain. Other people in Mr. Currie's office also knew of the arrangement.
"Does that make any sense?" Mr. Outlaw said, when pointing out that others would know of the conspiracy. "The evidence will show absolutely not."
Mr. Outlaw, underscored that there is a big difference between a conflict of interest and bribery. Mr. Outlaw stressed that Maryland has a part-time legislature and lawmakers are encouraged to have outside jobs.
Former Shoppers Food Warehouse executives, including former President William J. White and former vice president for real estate development R. Kevin Small, also are on trial.
The jury heard testimony from Edward Mitchell, a former vice president of employee relations for Supervalue Inc., the Minneapolis-based parent company of Shoppers. When Mr. White first informed him about plans to hire Mr. Currie, the senator was only going to work to increase minority employment and develop community outreach, Mr. Mitchell said.
Prosecutors asked Mr. Mitchell about a memo on Shopper's letterhead from Mr. White to Mr. Mitchell in July 2004 that recommended a $5,000 annual increase in payments to Mr. Currie, after he had been working for the grocery store chain for a year.
"He has done a great job working with human resources on recruiting, store development on traffic lights, entrance changes and found money from the state of Maryland and Baltimore County," the memo noted about Mr. Currie's activity. "He has interceded with the mayor of Baltimore, the county commissioners and the transportation secretary. He has personalized meetings with these individuals, and Shoppers associates have attended."
Mr. Mitchell said he never received the memo and only first learned of it this month.
Raquel Guillory, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley, who was Baltimore's mayor at the time the memo was dated, said attracting grocery stores to the city was a priority and city economic development officials met with supermarket chains. However, she could not confirm Tuesday whether Mr. O'Malley ever met with Mr. Currie or Shoppers officials on the subjects cited in the case.
Mr. Currie also failed to note in state financial disclosure forms that he was receiving income from the grocery store chain, and Ms. Gavin said that was an intentional omission to conceal the scheme from 2002 until 2008.
But Mr. Outlaw said Mr. Currie, who has been a senator since 1995 and was a delegate from 1987 until he won his Senate seat, often had inaccurate disclosure forms throughout his career.
"Ladies and gentlemen, frankly, they're a mess," Mr. Outlaw said.
Nicholas Vitek, White's lawyer, said the consulting work by Mr. Currie was known by others.
"This was all out in the open," Mr. Vitek said.
Jonathan Zucker, an attorney for Mr. Small, said Mr. Currie was hired only for his understanding of Maryland government. Mr. Zucker also noted that Currie was paid in monthly checks and reported the income on his taxes.
"This is not the way bribery is done," he said.
The trial before U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett is expected to last as long as six weeks.