- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The federal investigation into state Sen. Ulysses S. Currie extends beyond his consulting work for Shoppers Food Warehouse to include one of Prince George’s County’s most powerful developers and his $3.7 billion Westphalia project in Capitol Heights, according to documents recently released by the state.

The documents show investigators subpoenaed e-mails, call logs and letters from the Maryland State Highway Administration related to Mr. Currie’s interest in developer Kenneth H. Michael’s Westphalia project - the second-biggest in Prince George’s after the new $4 billion National Harbor project.

Mr. Currie, a Prince George’s Democrat under investigation for his undisclosed work on behalf of Shoppers Food Warehouse, inquired frequently on the status of road improvements near the Westphalia project and three other road projects leading to developments run by the Michael Cos., the documents also show.

According to an October 2006 facsimile, Mr. Currie alerted Mr. Michael that state highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen raised concerns about the Westphalia development.

Mr. Currie, 70, faxed a copy of the letter to Mr. Michael, noting: “FYI and possible meeting on the attached issue.”

In Mr. Pedersen’s letter, he expressed concern to Prince George’s officials about the Westphalia project overloading Maryland Route 4, which runs through the area, and asked them to consider improvements to other, nearbycounty roads.

“I am concerned about the potential profound effects that proposed changes in the plan may have on the state highway system and request your immediate assistance to address our concerns,” Mr. Pedersen said in the Oct. 3, 2006, letter - which went to County Executive Jack B. Johnson and County Council Chairman Samuel H. Dean, both Democrats, and Samuel J. Parker Jr., chairman of the Prince George’s County Planning Board.

Mr. Pedersen sent copies to Mr. Currie, in whose district the Westphalia project is being built, and other state highway officials, but did not include developers. Mr. Michael was scheduled to meet Nov. 14, 2007, with state transportation Secretary John D. Porcari in part to discuss the Westphalia project, according to an e-mail exchange between state highway staffers.

The state plans to widen Maryland Route 4 and build a flyover at the intersection of Suitland Parkway, at an estimated cost of $116 million to $126 million, a highway spokesman said. Mr. Pedersen has said he was contacted by the FBI, but will not discuss the interview.

FBI agents raided Mr. Currie’s District Heights home May 29, the same day it raided the corporate headquarters of Shoppers in Lanham. Agents took records relating to Mr. Currie’s consulting work for the grocery chain, according to FBI evidence recovery logs.

The Michael Cos. has not been named in the investigation. Mr. Michael has not returned calls since the investigation became public.

Mr. Currie walked away from a reporter when questioned about the investigation. Mr. Currie’s attorney, Dale P. Kelberman, did not return calls for this article.

An FBI spokesman would not say whether agents interviewed anyone at the Michael Cos. or whether the agency is focusing on the Westphalia project or other company projects.

The Washington Times first reported the government’s interest in the company in June, after an evidence log submitted to a federal judge showed that agents seized a letter from Mr. Michael, the company’s chairman, to Shoppers about the transfer of a liquor license from the grocery chain’s Takoma Park store to one in College Park run by his company.

Many of the nearly 2,000 pages of documents provided to federal investigators and Maryland news outlets by state transportation officials describe Mr. Currie’s lobbying activities on behalf of Shoppers, including asking highway administrators to approve traffic lights at two intersections in front of Shoppers stores.

“Senator Currie asks me every time he sees me whether we have resolved the Reisterstown Road Shoppers Food Warehouse issue,” Mr. Pedersen wrote in a February 2004 e-mail. “How close are we to resolving it?”

The documents also detail a close relationship between Mr. Currie, Shoppers and the Michael Cos., which acts as the grocery chain’s landlord throughout the county. However, the Westphalia project is the first identified in the probe with no apparent connection to the grocery chain.

The 500-acre project, which is being led by the Michael Cos., was touted at a 2004 press conference as an economic boost for an under-served section of the county.

Mr. Currie; former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican; and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat, attended the event withMr. Michael, who added to the star power by introducing as an equity partner Kwame Jackson, a runner-up on “The Apprentice” TV show with Donald Trump. Mr. Jackson is no longer involved in the project.

State highway officials kept Mr. Currie abreast of plans to build road improvements around the Westphalia development, according to e-mails, schedules and letters, including the plan to expand the intersection of Maryland 4 and Suitland Parkway.

“The planned development of this region is expected to be extensive,” Mr. Porcari wrote in an Oct. 5 letter to Mr. Currie.

Economic development officials in Maryland say road access is crucial to the success of a development such as a shopping center.

“It is access for your customers to get in and out of there,” said Jerry Redden, Worcester County’s director of economic development. “That’s sort of vital to the business, that they have access.”

A spokeswoman for Supervalu Inc., Shoppers’ parent company, would not comment on the “site-selection process” or possible business relationships with the Michael Cos.

Mr. Currie frequently lobbied on behalf of other road projects leading to developments by the Michael Cos., according to the documents.

One of the developments, in College Park, is home to a Shoppers, while another, a $200 million development in Capitol Heights called Ritchie Station Marketplace, is expected to have a Shoppers as its anchor when it opens in 2010, a Prince George’s economic development official said.

According to the documents, Mr. Michael attended meetings with Mr. Currie and state highway officials in 2006 and 2007 regarding plans to improve on- and off-ramps near the Ritchie Station development. The records also show that at least since 1999, Mr. Michael personally negotiated for the construction of the interchange and its expansion.

“We will donate all the land required for the right-of-way for the proposed widening of Ritchie Marlboro Road, at no cost to the state, with the understanding and condition that the entrance be designated, approved and the main entrance installed,” he wrote in an April 15, 1999, letter to Steven D. Foster, state highway chief of engineering and access permits.

The state opened the $24.4 million interchange in 2003.

The highway administration is now reviewing plans by the Michael Cos. to pay at least $3 million to expand the ramps leading to its 130-acre Ritchie Station project, adjacent to the Capital Beltway and in a largely undeveloped section of Prince George’s between Forestville and Andrews Air Force Base.

The Ritchie Station project, which county development officials hope will bring high-end retailers to the area, is at the northern reaches of the larger Westphalia project.

William F. Goddard, an executive for the Michael Cos. who worked on the Ritchie Station project, said he had not been contacted by federal investigators and wasunaware of their interest in the project.

Mr. Michael has negotiated billions of dollars in land deals in Prince George’s County over the past three decades while his company maintained close ties with state politicians.

Over the past decade, the developer has donated more than $21,000 to Mr. Currie’s campaigns and $300,000 to other state politicians, according to state campaign-finance records.

Mr. Currie is chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, which sets spending for state agencies during budget deliberations.

The Michael Cos. boasts a team of well-connected executives and account managers, including state Delegate Justin D. Ross, Prince George’s Democrat and member of House Speaker Michael E. Busch’s leadership team, who works as a commercial real estate broker for the company. Mr. Busch also is a Democrat, of Anne Arundel County.

Dennis Brownlee, a senior vice president at the Michael Cos., worked as the head of real estate for Prince George’s County before taking a job with the firm in 1995.

Mr. Ross worked for the company when he and Mr. Currie sponsored state legislation to transfer a liquor license from the Shoppers store in Takoma Park to the grocery chain’s store in the College Park Shopping Center run by the Michael Cos.

Mr. Ross has said he saw no conflict of interest in his vote. He did not return calls for comment on the new investigation.

Mr. Currie also lobbied state highway officials for a new off-ramp for the College Park center. According to the state documents, Mr. Pedersen scribbled a handwritten note to Mr. Currie in a Sept. 22, 2003, letter concerning the ramp: “As we discussed, we will do what we can to try to bring the two sides together on this issue.”

A state highway spokesman said the ramp was never built.

A Shoppers store also anchors one of the Michael Cos.’ new developments in Lanham, known as the Vista Gardens Marketplace.

E-mail exchanges between Mr. Goddard, the executive at the Michael Cos., and state highway officials regarding a traffic-light problem leading into the Vista Gardens development are among the documents being examined by FBI agents, along with plans the developer submitted to widen Martin Luther King Jr. Highway in front of the development.

The Vista Gardens development has a Home Depot, Target and Shoppers - three box stores expected to open soon at the Ritchie Station Marketplace.



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