Currie says $187K missing from campaign, replaces treasurer

Loss from state senator's fund under investigation

August 26, 2010|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

The chairman of Maryland's powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee reported Thursday that roughly $187,000 has been drained from his campaign account, and his attorney is conducting a "comprehensive investigation" to determine what happened to the money.

Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat, also reported that he has replaced his longtime campaign treasurer. Currie's attorney, Gregg Bernstein, wrote in a letter to the Maryland State Board of Elections that "inconsistencies" with the campaign funding report "appear to be the result of the treasurer's conduct."

The missing money appears to be unconnected to a federal probe into Currie's relationship with Shoppers Food Warehouse, a grocery chain based in his Prince George's County district. State prosecutors have also been investigating Currie's campaign account since an article in The Baltimore Sun raised questions about how the money was being spent.

Currie's former campaign treasurer, Olivia Harris, did not return phone calls Thursday. State prosecutors raided her Upper Marlboro home Aug. 20, according to a source familiar with the investigation. She has prepared Currie's campaign reports since he was elected to the Senate in 1994. Currie also did not return calls.

Jared DeMarinis, director of the division of candidacy and campaign finance for the Maryland State Board of Elections, said he would work with Currie's campaign to determine what happened to the money.

"They recognized that a full accounting is required," he said. "We would have required this, but they are doing it proactively on their own."

Currie chairs the committee that oversees Maryland's $32 billion budget. He was first elected to the General Assembly 24 years ago as a delegate representing Prince George's, and then ran successfully for the Senate in 1994. He was once a school principal and taught for 30 years.

Currie's campaign finance report, filed about a week late, indicates he paid $20,000 to Zuckerman Spaeder LLP, Bernstein's law firm, for "legal fees on behalf of state prosecution." Bernstein, who is running in the Democratic primary for state's attorney in Baltimore, declined to comment.

Candidates are permitted to use their campaign funds to pay for legal fees associated with investigations into their campaign accounts. However, Currie attracted attention from state prosecutors after filing a January report that showed the campaign paid $41,500 in legal fees to Baltimore law firm Miles & Stockbridge to fend off the federal probe into his dealings with Shoppers. The expenditure raised eyebrows because the federal investigation appears centered on his official duties and not his campaign.

The January report also showed campaign money used for an eye examination, auto repair and online games.

The federal investigation of Currie became public when agents searched Currie's District Heights home in May 2008. The federal agents alleged that Currie was paid $200,000 by Shoppers over five years and did not disclose it on required ethics forms.

While receiving the payments, Currie supported legislation that would help the company, including a bill in 2005 that allowed the chain to transfer liquor licenses between locations, according to federal agents. He pushed for state financial incentives that would help a Shoppers store at Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore. He also sought the installation of traffic lights and roadside improvements near the chain's store in Owings Mills.

The most recent report also showed $6,500 in legal fees paid to another Baltimore law firm, Rosenberg, Martin, Greenberg LLC, for "legal fees related to grand jury investigation of Olivia Harris." Gerard Martin, Harris' attorney, also declined to comment.

Currie faces no opposition in the coming primary or the general election. He raised $1,050 in the past eight months from four donors: one from Maryland, one from Florida, one from South Carolina and one from a Virginia-based storage company.

When Currie last filed a campaign finance report in January, he had $312,873 in his bank account. His most recent filing shows that he spent only $37,300 — mostly on legal fees — but has a balance of only $89,800.

Bernstein wrote in a letter to the Board of Elections that his client had "only recently" discovered "inconsistencies" in the finance account.

"We are currently conducting a comprehensive investigation of the situation," he wrote, "and we will provide you with information concerning the results of that investigation as soon as possible."

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