Currie probe looks at possible influence deals

Records detail his calls to chain

July 24, 2008|By Gadi Dechter and Laura Smitherman | Gadi Dechter and Laura Smitherman,Sun Reporters

The federal investigation into state Sen. Ulysses Currie's work for Shoppers Food Warehouse is centered on whether the grocery chain paid the lawmaker to use the prestige of his office to secure favorable legislation and actions by state agencies, according to newly released documents that detail electronic phone records and surveillance of the prominent lawmaker's home.

Agents with the FBI's public corruption squad have turned up paychecks from Shoppers to Currie and hundreds of phone calls the Prince George's County Democrat made to company officials, often when the company was seeking to influence public officials on legislation and business transactions.

At least two current and former Shoppers employees have been cooperating with the continuing investigation, their attorneys told The Sun.

Currie never disclosed his employment by Shoppers on General Assembly ethics forms, and state and city officials whom he lobbied on the grocery chain's behalf have said they weren't aware of the connection. Currie has declined to discuss the case, and his attorney, Dale Kelberman, did not return a call yesterday.

Shoppers' parent company, Minnesota-based Supervalu Inc., has also declined to comment on the case, other than to acknowledge that Currie was an "outside consultant" to the supermarket chain. According to the search warrant affidavit, Shoppers began paying Currie as a consultant in early 2003, the year he became chairman of the Senate's powerful Budget and Taxation Committee.

At Kelberman's request, Federal Magistrate Judge Paul W. Grimm redacted portions of the affidavit describing bank and tax records that reveal the amount of money Currie received from Shoppers over the years.

The new documents confirm that the FBI investigation is focused on Currie's employment with Shoppers and that federal prosecutors are investigating possible mail or wire fraud. Under federal criminal law, prosecutors have wide latitude to bring charges against state officials if the alleged fraud involved the use of U.S. mail, phones, radio or TV.

Any "scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false and fraudulent purposes" is punishable by up to 20 years in prison, according to federal law. The federal statute defines "scheme or artifice" as an attempt "to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services." That is how federal prosecutors can go after conflicts of interest by state officials, according to former federal prosecutors and white-collar defense attorneys.

In his application for a search warrant to raid Currie's District Heights home in May, FBI Special Agent Steven Quisenberry said there was probable cause that Shoppers paid Currie "for the purpose of influencing Currie in his official actions, including the exercise of his powers and influence as a state senator."

In return for payment, Quisenberry continued, there is reason to believe that "Currie agreed to take and did take official actions ... to pass certain legislation and to influence the action of various public officials and private entities in areas of interest" to Lanham-based Shoppers.

Former Shoppers Vice President R. Kevin Small has been interviewed by federal agents, his lawyer Paul F. Kemp said. "I think they regard him as a witness, and he's been fully cooperative with them," Kemp said.

Alex Montague, Shoppers' director of real estate, has also spoken with the FBI, said his attorney David Irwin. "As far as I know, he is simply an informational resource," Irwin said.

Since 2003, Currie has had about 320 telephone "contacts" from his home and cell phone with Shoppers officials, mostly employees responsible for real estate and store construction, according to the FBI documents.

In the affidavit, Quisenberry describes several instances in which he said Currie intervened on behalf of Shoppers while he was employed by the company.

For example, Quisenberry says, in 2005 and 2006, while the Prince George's County liquor board was considering whether to allow the transfer of a liquor license from one Shoppers store to another, Currie "was in frequent contact" with Shoppers representatives and the county's chief liquor inspector. Currie also voted in favor of related 2005 legislation authorizing the county liquor board to transfer a liquor license from one supermarket to another.

The search warrant application also details intervention by Currie on behalf of Shoppers when the supermarket was negotiating with the owner of West Baltimore's Mondawmin Mall. The mall's owner is scheduled to receive state subsidies as part of a multimillion-dollar redevelopment of the property. A Shoppers store opened at Mondawmin last year.

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