FBI inquiry into Currie's consulting grows

Senator resists calls to resign as undisclosed work is examined

May 31, 2008|By Gadi Dechter, Bradley Olson and Justin Fenton | Gadi Dechter, Bradley Olson and Justin Fenton,Sun reporters

FBI officials intend to subpoena legislative records in connection with an investigation of Sen. Ulysses Currie, state government sources said, indicating a broadening of the federal probe of the powerful Prince George's County Democrat's previously undisclosed consulting work for a regional grocery chain.

On Thursday, FBI agents raided Currie's District Heights home and also searched the Lanham headquarters of Shoppers Food & Pharmacy, for which the 70-year-old chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee was an "outside consultant," according to company officials.

Amid calls by the state Republican Party to relinquish his leadership post, Currie pledged to remain in office but allowed that the unfolding investigation is already taking its toll.

"As I look back over my background, I was always able to withstand any challenge out there," he said. "But this one would have to rate close to the top."

Currie referred questions about the investigation to his attorney, former federal prosecutor Dale Kelberman of Baltimore's Miles & Stockbridge firm, who declined to discuss his client's relationship with Shoppers Food.

As to the substance of the FBI probe, Kelberman said, "We have not been told what the investigation is about."

A spokeswoman for Supervalu, Shoppers Food's parent company in Minnesota, also declined to comment yesterday, but said that the company is cooperating with the FBI.

Records show that Currie did not report receiving money from Shoppers Food in any of his financial disclosure statements filed with the State Ethics Commission, which date to 1986 when he was first elected to the House of Delegates.

State ethics laws require legislators to report sources of outside income, including consulting activities. urrie has only once filed a disclaimer form with the General Assembly's ethics counsel indicating that he might face a conflict of interest, for a bill in 1998 that altered the pension system for teachers.

The retired educator twice listed that he had received a salary from the Prince George's County Board of Education, and also listed various commercial properties that he controlled in the late 1980s and a stake in a Mount Rainier funeral home as sources of income. But he has never listed any consulting activities.

Currie's outside employment was unknown to Senate colleagues reached yesterday.

"I just assumed he was a full-time legislator," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Democrat who represents parts of Prince George's County and has known Currie for years, from the time Currie was a school principal.

"I didn't know about any other employment," he said.

The state ethics commission also had no records indicating that Shoppers Food or Supervalu had registered any lobbyists with the state in recent years.

As news about the probe - which caught state and Prince George's County politicians, lobbyists and other insiders off guard this week - spread, Currie spent the day fielding phone calls from both well-wishers and reporters. "It's a major, major distraction," he said. "But I try to stay focused."

The chairman of the Maryland Republican Party said the investigation was evidence of a "culture of corruption" in Annapolis. "It would be prudent, in my estimation, that Sen. Currie step down from his post as Chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, at least until this situation is resolved," party leader Jim Pelura said in a statement.

Currie said that he had no intention of doing that but allowed that he did not know how long the probe might continue. "That's the most difficult part about it," he said, "the unknown."

Ryan O'Donnell, executive director of government watchdog Common Cause Maryland, said Currie's business relationship with a company whose parent has given him $7,500 in political donations since 2004 "undermines voters' trust in the system" and harks back to other recent federal investigations into state legislators.

Former Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, pleaded guilty to charges related to public corruption last year and is in federal prison.

But in 2004, an investigation of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's slots-related fundraising was closed without charges after the FBI found no evidence of wrongdoing.

"We shouldn't jump to conclusions in this case," O'Donnell said in a statement, "but it's safe to say that such incidents reinforce the damaging perception of 'pay-to-play' politics."

Yesterday, the state attorney general's office called Department of Legislative Services head Karl Aro and told him to expect a federal subpoena presumably related to the Currie probe, said Lynne Porter, executive assistant to Aro, who was out of state at a conference.

Late yesterday afternoon, the subpoena had not yet arrived, Porter said.

Two sources familiar with the matter confirmed that federal agents alerted Maryland officials this morning about a forthcoming subpoena. Richard Wolf, a spokesman for the FBI's Baltimore office, would not say what investigators seek.

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