Lobbying for minor details

Currie involved in roads, lights near Shoppers sites

July 08, 2008|By Laura Smitherman and Gadi Dechter | Laura Smitherman and Gadi Dechter,Sun reporters

State Sen. Ulysses Currie has repeatedly intervened with state agencies since at least 2003 on behalf of Shoppers Food and Pharmacy, involving himself in the minute details of its business, such as traffic light installations, roadside improvements and other projects near the grocery chain's stores, according to thousands of documents reviewed by The Sun.

Currie, the Prince George's Democrat who chairs the powerful Budget and Taxation Committee, worked as a paid consultant for the chain but did not disclose that employment on state financial disclosure forms. His ties with the firm are now the subject of a federal investigation that led to simultaneous FBI raids on his home and Shoppers' Lanham headquarters in May.

According to the documents, he held meetings, made phone calls and wrote letters - including some on his committee stationery - to state transportation officials, frequently lobbying on matters far from his legislative district.

The documents were released to the news media yesterday in response to requests under Maryland's Public Information Act to several state transportation agencies. Many of the agencies have received grand jury subpoenas in connection with the federal investigation. Some of the documents released yesterday also were turned over to federal authorities.

Currie intervened for Shoppers on projects around the state, including in Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County and West Baltimore.

Supervalu Inc., the grocery store chain's parent company, has confirmed that Currie worked for the company, but officials have declined to say when or how much he was paid.

Dale Kelberman, Currie's attorney, declined to comment yesterday.

The Sun reported last week that Currie also intervened in recent years on Shoppers' behalf when it was seeking public financing and other concessions as part of the multimillion-dollar redevelopment of Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore. State and city officials on that project said they weren't aware of his connection to Shoppers until news of the investigation broke.

The documents released reveal a pattern of Currie becoming engaged in Shoppers business far outside his legislative district.

For instance, Currie repeatedly prodded state officials for updates on Shoppers inquiries regarding a proposed traffic light in Owings Mills near a proposed new Shoppers Food store. State Highway Administrator Neil J. Pedersen, who was interviewed by federal investigators last month, hinted in a February 2004 e-mail how persistent Currie was on the matter.

"Senator Currie asks me every time he sees me whether we have resolved the Reisterstown Road Shoppers Food Warehouse issue," Pedersen wrote in an e-mail in February 2004 to another state transportation official. "How close are we to resolving it?"

The year before, Currie had sent Pedersen a "traffic impact analysis" prepared by a Shoppers consultant recommending the traffic signal on Reisterstown Road in Owings Mills.

Kenneth A. McDonald, former chief of the Engineering Access Permits Division, asked his staff in an e-mail to review the proposal. The analysis "was delivered to Neil by Senator Ulysses Currie," McDonald wrote. "Given the source ... I must ask for ... an expedited review."

Ultimately, State Highway Administration officials determined that a new traffic signal was not justified, but Pedersen requested his staff to reassess the Reisterstown Road proposal, records show. "Senator Currie has been involved," McDonald wrote in an explanation to SHA staff.

Pedersen then wrote in a letter to Shoppers Vice President R. Kevin Small that "we would be glad to revisit the possibility of signalization in the future." Currie was copied on that letter - as he was on numerous letters between state engineers and planners on deliberations related to the proposed Baltimore County traffic signal. To date, a traffic signal has not been installed.

Pedersen fielded multiple phone calls and had frequent communication with Currie, according to the documents. In 2005, Pedersen was apparently pressured to expedite a traffic light project near a shopping center in Laurel where the grocery chain planned to open a store. Pedersen wrote in an e-mail to his staff that it was "very critical" that the agency move quickly, noting that Currie's committee has oversight over its budget.

Pedersen, through a spokesman, declined to comment yesterday.

"It is very normal for legislators to look at traffic signals," said David Buck, an SHA spokesman. Buck said Pedersen "corresponds on a daily basis with dozens of legislators ... on behalf of themselves and their constituents about the status of traffic signals and improvements to state roads."

State officials said decisions on transportation projects are based on safety and engineering standards.

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