Currie pushed for stoplight at Shoppers site

E-mail indicates intervention to aid chain senator worked for

June 06, 2008|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,Sun reporter

Maryland Sen. Ulysses Currie, who is being investigated by the FBI in connection with his consulting work for Shoppers Food & Pharmacy, apparently pressured state highway officials to expedite a traffic light project near a shopping center where the grocery chain planned to open a store.

Currie has been an outside consultant to Lanham-based Shoppers, according to the company, though he did not disclose any consulting work in financial statements that he is required to file with the state. The Prince George's County Democrat's connections with the company have attracted scrutiny since FBI agents raided his District Heights home and Shoppers headquarters last week.

Currie's intervention with the stoplight request, revealed in an e-mail exchange between State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen and an underling, is the latest example to come to light of his involvement in state business concerning Shoppers.

Pedersen wrote in the 2005 e-mail that the stoplight plans were "very important" to the chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. Currie has headed the committee since the start of the 2003 legislative session. The panel handles the state highway agency's budget and the number of employee positions at the agency, which are sometimes referred to as PINs, and Currie's position of power was not lost on Pedersen, according to the e-mail.

"It is very critical that we do all that we can to expedite this as much as possible," Pedersen wrote in March 2005. "This is very important to the chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. We have our budget, PINs and several critical pieces of legislation before his committee right now."

Currie's lawyer, Dale Kelberman, declined to comment.

When asked during a short interview about the stoplight request and the e-mail exchange, Currie said, "I know nothing about that."

Maryland Department of Transportation spokesman Jack Cahalan said no one at that agency or the State Highway Administration has been contacted by the FBI.

Valerie Edgar, a State Highway Administration spokeswoman, said the agency frequently receives requests for traffic improvements and changes from elected officials. She said that Pedersen asks staff members to provide updates of any outstanding issues previously raised by state lawmakers before the budget hearings so that he can respond to their questions.

The state agency had denied in 2003 the request for a stoplight near a Laurel shopping center where Shoppers was to be the anchor store but later approved it after further review, Edgar said. She added that it is not unusual for initial requests to be rejected so that more study can be done. "It's a back-and-forth process," she said.

Edgar said that Pendersen's e-mail, which was first reported by WBAL-TV, was intended to remind staff members that they should move on the project as soon as possible. Another traffic signal request by Shoppers in Baltimore County was denied about the same time and never resubmitted, she said.

The Department of Legislative Services is working to comply with a wide-ranging grand jury subpoena seeking Currie's personal and professional records, as well as records kept by committee staff members. In the interview, Currie said: "I'll say this much - it appears they were trying to cover the world."

Officials with the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment.

Currie also took an interest in other state matters that involved Shoppers. He attended three meetings in early 2006 during which Washington Metro officials, Prince George's County officials and Shoppers representatives discussed the possible commercial development of an area near the West Hyattsville Metro station.

Also, in 2005, the Prince George's County delegation that included Currie sponsored a bill that facilitated the transfer of a liquor license from one Shoppers store to another. The bill passed the General Assembly unanimously. The legislative language concerning the liquor license transfer was added through an amendment introduced by Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt, who died in January.

Currie did not file conflict-of-interest disclaimers with the General Assembly's ethics counsel about his work with Shoppers. Under Maryland's rules, lawmakers are instructed to file such disclaimers in certain situations, such as when their employer would be affected by proposed legislation in a way that similar companies would not be affected. On the form, they assert they can vote on the matter objectively and in the public's interest.

Haley M. Meyer, a spokeswoman for Supervalu Inc., the parent company to Shoppers, would not say when Currie began as a consultant or describe the nature of his work. She has said the company is cooperating with the FBI and declined to provide details. The grocery store chain has 2,500 stores nationally and 64 in the Baltimore-Washington region.

laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

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