Influential state Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's… (Baltimore Sun file photo )
An influential state senator who has been the subject of a federal corruption probe used campaign contributions to pay $41,500 in apparent criminal defense legal fees over the past year, despite a 2008 Maryland attorney general's advice letter that bars such spending.
Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat who heads the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, declined to answer questions about the payments to a prominent criminal defense attorney recorded on his annual campaign finance report.
The attorney general's office has said that campaign money can be used only for election-related expenses. Currie declined to discuss specifics of the payments to Miles & Stockbridge, the law firm that represented him during the investigation, but he did not deny that they were related to the inquiry.
Currie has been under investigation since at least May 2008, accused of using his influence to push favorable legislation and arrange high-level meetings with state officials for a supermarket firm that employed him as a consultant. The senator did not promptly disclose on required financial statements that he had received payments from the Shoppers Food and Pharmacy chain.
The expenditures surprised political observers who have long believed that donations cannot be used for legal bills unless directly related to campaign activities, and some grass-roots Republican strategists said it could add momentum to a wave of voter cynicism in an election year.
"I think people look at this and shake their heads and say, 'This is just the reason that we need a change in government,' " said Dave Schwartz, Maryland director for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, which staged a protest on the opening day of the legislative session. "It is a culture of entitlement down there, where these guys feel they can do whatever they want."
Sean Dobson, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Progressive Maryland, says the case illustrates a "broader problem" with Maryland's campaign laws that give elected officials wide latitude in defining expenses as "campaign-related." The definition permits lawmakers to pay for gas, meals and some travel, he said, creating an environment that "undermines voter confidence in government."
Ryan O'Donnell, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland, said a campaign donation is not supposed to be a gift to an individual.
"It is an investment," he said. "It is a political statement."
Currie, first elected in November 1994, has not been charged with a crime. The federal investigation appears to center on whether Shoppers, which has its headquarters in his Prince George's County district, hired Currie to push legislation and state agency decisions that would benefit the company.
Few details of the investigation have emerged in recent months, and many observers believe that it has stalled. The probe became public in May 2008 when FBI agents raided Currie's house in search of documents related to consulting work he had done for the grocery chain.
Federal agents filed papers saying the lawmaker "used his official position and influence" to support legislation favorable to the chain, including backing a 2005 bill that allowed the grocery store to transfer liquor licenses between locations.
The agents alleged that Currie was paid $200,000 over five years and failed to report that on the financial disclosure forms that all members of the Maryland General Assembly must file annually.
An affidavit for the search of his house in May 2008 repeatedly references actions that Currie took "as a state senator" or "in his official capacity" and does not mention any campaign activities.
In June 2008, at the request of the State Board of Elections, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler's office wrote a letter saying that Currie cannot use campaign money to pay legal bills "if the investigation relates to his conduct in office unrelated to electoral activities or to personal matters." The elections board sought advice because Currie was asking whether he could spend campaign donations on his lawyers.Currie reported on an annual campaign disclosure form filed last month that he made four payments in the past year totaling $41,555.27 to Miles & Stockbridge, the law firm that employs Dale P. Kelberman, an attorney who has represented Currie during the FBI investigation. A comment next to each expense says "legal fees."
The most recent payment, in early January, was $667.61. Most of the payments were made last summer.
Currie raised $65,200 in the past year and has $98,000 in his account, campaign records show.
Kelberman declined to comment, as did Currie, who referred the matter to the office of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. Miller is a close ally who selected Currie to head the budget committee. Currie declined to say why Miller should handle the question.