Currie contacted Cabinet members

Papers show actions on behalf of Shoppers under 2 administrations

August 05, 2008|By Laura Smitherman and Gadi Dechter | Laura Smitherman and Gadi Dechter,Sun reporters

State Sen. Ulysses Currie, the subject of a federal investigation into alleged influence-peddling, acted as a liaison between top-ranking Cabinet members of the past two administrations and Shoppers Food Warehouse, newly released documents show.

In one instance, Currie, who earned more than $200,000 over five years in a previously undisclosed consulting job with the grocery chain, wrote on his legislative stationery to former Shoppers Chief Executive Officer William J. White in September 2003 that he had spoken with James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., budget secretary in the Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. administration at the time, about Mondawmin Mall, where Shoppers planned to invest millions of dollars. Currie wrote that DiPaula was working with the Rouse Co., which owned the mall property then.

The documents show that Currie also met with the economic development secretaries under both Ehrlich and Gov. Martin O'Malley, and with Ehrlich's transportation secretary, Robert L. Flanagan. The meetings represent the highest-level government contacts disclosed yet in Currie's efforts on Shoppers' behalf.

The letter referring to Currie's discussion with DiPaula, which was turned over to federal authorities and made public yesterday under open-records laws, doesn't specify the nature of the budget secretary's talks with Rouse. But previously disclosed documents have shown that Currie intervened several times in recent years on behalf of Shoppers when it was seeking public financing and other concessions as part of the West Baltimore mall's redevelopment. A Shoppers store opened at Mondawmin last year.

"I have spoken to Chip DiPaula and he is working with Mondawmin Mall. He is working with Rouse but needs a little more time," Currie wrote. He also thanked White for a donation to Head Start, an educational program with which Currie has been affiliated.

The FBI's public corruption squad is investigating whether Shoppers paid Currie to use the prestige of his office to secure favorable legislation and actions by state agencies. Currie did not disclose his employment as required in ethics filings with the state.

Currie also met in early 2004 with Aris Melissaratos, then secretary of the Department of Business and Economic Development, about the Mondawmin Mall project. According to a written account, White and other Shoppers employees attended the meeting in the Senate office building to ask for $2 million in public subsidies. Melissaratos turned down that request but said he would talk to city officials to see if more could be done.

In addition, the senator met with the current economic development chief, David W. Edgerley, weeks before the senator's home was raided by FBI agents in May. Edgerley wrote in a memo that he met with Currie and Alex Montague, Shoppers' director of real estate, who inquired about financial incentives for the grocery store chain. Shoppers provided a list of planned store locations.

Edgerley said in the memo that he told Montague that his department typically doesn't provide financial incentives to retail operations such as Shoppers but that the company might be eligible for assistance through the Enterprise Zone program, a state program to draw businesses to downtrodden areas. Edgerley promised to have his staff review the list of Shoppers sites to determine whether they might be eligible.

Currie, a former school principal who was elected to the General Assembly as a delegate two decades ago, declined to comment yesterday through his wife. Currie's attorney, Dale Kelberman, could not be reached.

The Prince George's County Democrat has continued to carry out legislative duties since news of the investigation broke more than two months ago, and he said in a recent interview that he has been knocking on doors in his district in preparation for a 2010 re-election bid.

"I got great responses from my constituents," Currie said in the interview.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has said that he has no plans to remove Currie from his post as chairman of the influential Budget and Taxation Committee. "He has not been charged with any offense," Miller said. "Everybody I know wants to give him the benefit of the doubt."

DiPaula, who now works for an Annapolis developer, did not return phone calls seeking comment. He spent more than two years as secretary of budget and management in Ehrlich's Cabinet, and he later became the governor's chief of staff. He was among the most influential members of the Ehrlich administration.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said that while Ehrlich supported the Mondawmin project, he didn't recall having any discussions with Currie about it and didn't know that Currie worked for Shoppers.

Officials with Minneapolis-based Supervalu, the parent company of Shoppers, have said they are cooperating with the FBI but declined to comment further.

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