The chairman of the state Senate's powerful budget committee relinquished the post Wednesday after he was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of bribery, mail fraud and other criminal offenses.
Prosecutors say veteran state Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat, used his official position for personal gain by accepting payments to help a supermarket chain expand in Maryland. Also named in the 18-count indictment were two former executives with Shoppers Food Warehouse.
"When businesses can obtain valuable government benefits by putting a senator on the payroll, it diminishes public confidence and disadvantages companies that refuse to go along with the pay-to-play approach," the U.S. attorney for Maryland, Rod J. Rosenstein, said in a statement. "Government officials cross a bright line when they accept payments in return for using the authority of their office, whether they take cash in envelopes or checks labeled as consulting payments."
Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, a close ally, said Currie agreed to step down as chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, which oversees the state's $32 billion annual spending plan.
In a statement, Miller said he was "saddened" that the investigation resulted in an indictment but is "confident" that Currie will be exonerated.
Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Howard County Democrat, will lead the budget panel, Miller said.
Reached by telephone, Currie declined to comment. Dale Kelberman, his attorney, said the senator is innocent of any wrongdoing and was properly employed as a consultant by the grocery store, which is headquartered in his district.
Kelberman said Currie's work on behalf of Shoppers follows a long tradition of Maryland's citizen lawmakers holding outside employment, because the General Assembly meets for only three months a year.
Kelberman described the federal bribery case as "highly unusual" because it does not allege any secret cash payments. He noted that Currie paid federal taxes on his income from the grocery store.
Rumors of Currie's imminent indictment had circulated for months. The investigation into his dealings with Shoppers became public in May 2008 when agents raided his home in District Heights.
Currie, 73, is running unopposed for re-election. But Audrey Scott, chairwoman of the state Republican Party, said the indictment is likely to fuel anti-incumbent feeling.
"Sometimes, apparently, career politicians lose touch," Scott said. "It certainly re-emphasized the need for checks and balance in Annapolis."
The grand jury indicted the two former Shoppers executives, former President William White and R. Kevin Small, former vice president for real estate development, accusing them of filing contracts that falsely described Currie's work as minority outreach, community relations and public affairs. Prosecutors say the executives were in fact buying his legislative influence.
Bribery is frequently a difficult charge to prove because prosecutors must establish intent. All three men were charged with theft of honest services, a broad legal theory that states officials are legally bound to act in their constituents' best interests. The Supreme Court has significantly narrowed how prosecutors can use the law, saying that it must be connected with bribery.
The prosecutors also charged Currie and White with giving false statements to the FBI, a charge similar to one on which a federal jury convicted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich last month.
Separately, federal prosecutors struck a deal with Shoppers in which the Lanham-based company will pay a $2.5 million fine and admit to conspiring to bribe Currie. A judge must still agree to the deal.
"We chose to resolve this case so that we could put this matter behind us and focus on our current business initiatives," said Luke Friedrich, a spokesman for Shoppers' parent company, Minnesota-based Supervalue.
In the 48-page indictment, prosecutors allege that Currie accepted payments from Shoppers totaling $245,816 in exchange for helping the company navigate state bureaucracy from 2003 to 2008.
To track his favors, Currie created a document titled "Accomplishments on Behalf of Shoppers," in which he listed 12 state and legislative hurdles he had removed to benefit the company, according to the indictment.
Currie's list included securing state funds for a Shoppers store in Baltimore; state road improvements near stores in Prince George's County and Baltimore County; and facilitating state approvals in the construction of a store in Chillum, according to papers filed with the federal court. Currie wrote that he could "bring more opportunities" to the grocery chain because he was "in a unique position" to help the company, according to the indictment.