Currie linked to mall plan

Senator pushed officials on Mondawmin project

Sun Exclusive

July 03, 2008|By Laura Smitherman and Gadi Dechter | Laura Smitherman and Gadi Dechter,Sun reporters

State Sen. Ulysses Currie, whose ties to Shoppers Food and Pharmacy are under federal investigation, intervened several times in recent years on behalf of the grocery store chain when it was seeking public financing and other concessions as part of the multimillion-dollar redevelopment of Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore, according to interviews and records obtained by The Sun.

Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat who is chairman of an influential committee that oversees the state's budget, arranged meetings and contacted city and state officials at critical junctures in the years-long negotiations. He once convened a meeting at a Bowie seafood restaurant to allow Shoppers to air concerns that it couldn't move forward with the deal without more public financing, according to interviews and e-mails, calendars and other documents sought under Maryland's Public Information Act.

The deal to redevelop Mondawmin Mall has become a focal point for federal investigators, who late Tuesday issued a grand-jury subpoena on the state Department of Business and Economic Development. The subpoena, the latest in a series served on agencies as well as Currie and Shoppers, seeks information on meetings between DBED officials and Currie regarding Shoppers and financial incentives for the grocer at Mondawmin Mall and elsewhere.

The documents provide the most extensive picture yet of Currie's intervention on behalf of the company, actions that appear to have sparked an FBI raid on his house in late May. Currie referred questions to his attorney, Baltimore defense lawyer Dale Kelberman, who didn't return a phone call yesterday. Another attorney for Currie, William H. Murphy Jr., declined to comment.

The federal inquiry appears to focus in part on Currie's employment as an outside consultant for Shoppers, a fact that the senator didn't reveal on financial reports required of lawmakers and that he didn't share with a number of state and city officials contacted by The Sun. Supervalu Inc., the grocery store chain's parent company, has confirmed that Currie worked for the company, but officials have declined to say when.

"We continue to cooperate with the FBI but are not providing any specific details" to the news media, said a Supervalu spokeswoman, Haley M. Meyer.

Past and current state officials said that they thought Currie's involvement was unusual, since he doesn't represent Baltimore, but that the senator explained his interest either as a matter of constituent services - Shoppers is based in his district - or as a way to honor the memory of longtime state Del. Howard P. Rawlings, who championed the Mondawmin project to revitalize the city. Rawlings died in November 2003.

"My first-blush reaction was, 'Wait a minute,' " said James Henry, managing director of finance programs at the DBED, who attended the meeting at Rip's restaurant in Bowie. "I can remember initially being puzzled as to why we would hear from a Prince George's County lawmaker about Shoppers, and then someone told me that Shoppers has a major operation in that jurisdiction."

The federal investigation came to light when the FBI carried out simultaneous raids on Currie's District Heights home and Shoppers' Lanham headquarters. Since then, several state agencies have been served grand-jury subpoenas, including the Department of Legislative Services, the Maryland Transit Administration, the State Highway Administration and the Motor Vehicle Administration.

Currie also took an interest in 2006 in the commercial development of an area near the West Hyattsville Metro station that involved Shoppers and pressured state highway officials the year before to expedite a traffic light project near a shopping center where the grocery chain planned to open a store, according to an e-mail written at the time by a state highway official.

Mondawmin Mall, which opened in 1956, is one of the oldest shopping malls on the East Coast. State and city officials envisioned its redevelopment as a way to bring a full-service supermarket and more retailers to the long-neglected center of Baltimore's inner city. The Liberty Heights mall employs 900 people, and the redevelopment was expected to bring 700 construction jobs, according to a financial analysis. Shoppers ultimately did open a store at Mondawmin in November 2007, and a Target store is expected to open by late summer.

In December 2003, Currie intervened to address a dispute that arose over the Motor Vehicle Administration's reluctance to relocate from its Mondawmin location to make room for the proposed Shoppers grocery there. The transportation agency wasn't willing to accept alternatives proposed by Columbia-based Rouse Co., which owned the mall property at the time. Currie arranged a meeting between then-Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, Rouse executive Wayne Christmann and three Supervalu officials, according to the documents.

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