Prosecutor asked to investigate Maryland lawmaker

Use of campaign funds by state Sen. Ulysses Currie called questionable

  • State Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's Democrat, has been accused of taking bribes from a grocer.
State Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's Democrat,… (Baltimore Sun file photo )
April 21, 2010|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

The state prosecutor has been asked to investigate whether a powerful Maryland lawmaker improperly used his campaign account for personal purchases and other expenses unrelated to his candidacy.

The Maryland Board of Elections requested an investigation of Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee. The elections board is not satisfied with the campaign's explanation for $53,772 in expenditures, including $41,555.27 for legal fees first reported by The Baltimore Sun.

Other expenditures that raised questions include: $118 for an eye examination, $133.94 to a company that sells toy guns and remote-control tanks, $31 for auto body repair, $29.99 for online games, $21.59 for a cell phone accessory and $12 for a golf course membership fee.

The payments piqued the board's interest because, by law, campaign funds can be used only to promote the "success or defeat of a candidate," according to Jared DeMarinis, director of the elections board.

Currie is also the target of a federal investigation into whether he used his influence to secure legislation favorable to a grocery chain based in his district without disclosing that he was a paid consultant for the company. No charges have been brought in that case.

Elected in 1994, Currie oversees the Senate committee responsible for the state's $32 billion budget. He was recently named as the chamber's fourth most powerful lawmaker, according to the Maryland Gazette of Politics and Business.

Currie did not return an e-mail or phone messages Wednesday seeking comment. His campaign treasurer, Olivia Harris, did not return a message.

After a routine audit of Currie's campaign account, the elections board requested the investigation in a letter to the state prosecutor dated April 12. Shelly Glenn, a senior assistant state prosecutor, confirmed that the office received the request but, citing office policy, declined to confirm whether a probe has been launched.

DeMarinis had written Currie's campaign organization March 2 seeking more information about some of its disbursements. The board questioned $9,159 in American Express payments, a $1,000 payment to a caterer, $500 paid to a speech coach, $500 for transportation for the Morgan State University Choir and $500 to a civic association active in his legislative district.

The campaign replied March 28, connecting some of the spending to events with potential voters, but failed to provide sufficient information to satisfy the board, DeMarinis said.

"When the review that has taken place shows the potential for issues with campaign finance laws, further investigation is definitely warranted," DeMarinis said.

The elections board asked state prosecutors to determine whether Currie made "impermissible disbursements or expenditures" of campaign money.

It also wants investigators to look at whether Currie's campaign improperly used an American Express card to make purchases, according to the letter. Campaigns are not allowed to have credit cards and are permitted to write checks only for individual items.

In a letter to the elections board, Harris acknowledged that the credit card is in the campaign's name, which "we now recognize is inappropriate." She wrote that the campaign intends to cancel the card.

Harris expressed surprise at some of the board's audit findings, noting, "I would like to point out that many of the expenditures questioned in your letter … have been reported in the same fashion on previous campaign finance reports."

The largest expenditure questioned by the board was $41,555 paid to defense attorney Dale P. Kelberman, despite a letter from the state's attorney general saying that Currie could use campaign funds for legal fees only if the investigation "relates to his campaign activities."

Harris defended the payment of the legal fees by saying the campaign has received subsequent advice from the attorney general's office and counsel advising that campaign money can be used because the federal probe has a sufficient connection to Currie's candidacy. In her letter to the elections board, she said the probe centers on whether Currie properly filled out disclosure forms that are similar to paperwork candidates are also required to submit.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Currie ally, has said he asked the senator about the second letter from the attorney general's office, but he has declined to make it public. The attorney general's office has also declined to release the second letter.

The federal investigation became widely known in May 2008 after federal agents searched Currie's home in District Heights. The federal agents alleged that Currie was paid $200,000 by Shoppers Food and Pharmacy over five years and did not disclose it on the ethics forms that all members of the General Assembly must complete.

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