Grocer cuts deal to avoid prosecution in Currie bribery case

Veteran state senator now seeks public defenders

September 13, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

A federal judge agreed Monday to defer prosecution of the grocery store chain at the center of a bribery case involving state Sen. Ulysses Currie, who was head of the Senate's powerful budgeting committee until his indictment this month.

To avoid prosecution, SuperValu, the parent company of Shoppers Food & Pharmacy, must pay $2.5 million in the next two weeks and continue to cooperate in the prosecution of Currie and two former grocery store executives.

U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett said he aims to set Currie's trial date for June. Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat who has denied the charges, was not present Monday, but he is seeking new lawyers: federal public defenders.

Currie is charged with 17 counts, including bribery, mail fraud and making false statements to the FBI. The 73-year-old lawmaker, who has held office for 15 years, faces no primary or general election opponent this year.

Bennett approved the grocery store deal after a brief hearing in Baltimore. The statement of facts to which SuperValu agreed says it paid Currie almost $250,000 between 2003 and 2008 "in exchange for Currie using and agreeing to use his official position and taking and agreeing to take official actions in ways that would benefit [Shoppers] and certain of its officers and employees."

Over those years, Currie was employed as a contractor for the store, ostensibly to focus on community affairs, community leadership, and minority recruitment and outreach. The statement of facts, made public at the Monday hearing, says Currie and several Shoppers employees and officers "disguised the true nature of his employment" from SuperValu executives and Maryland citizens.

At the hearing, the judge identified two federal public defenders in the courtroom as in the process of finalizing their representation of Currie. The attorneys, Joseph L. Evans and Lucius T. Outlaw III, characterized their relationship with Currie as a recent development.

Currie has been represented by attorney Dale Kelberman, one of former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon's attorneys in her recent public corruption case — which ended with a single conviction on a misdemeanor charge and a plea agreement to another charge that resulted in her resignation earlier this year.

Under the federal Criminal Justice Act, defendants "who are financially unable to obtain adequate representation are entitled to appointment of counsel to represent them."

As a lawmaker, Currie draws an annual salary of $43,500. As a retired Prince George's County schoolteacher and principal with more than 30 years of service, he also receives a public pension.

He has faced apparent financial setbacks in recent months. His longtime campaign treasurer, Olivia Harris, was charged last week with stealing more than $150,000 from his re-election account. And earlier this year, the Maryland State Board of Elections called for prosecutors to review Currie's use of more than $40,000 in campaign donations to pay for legal expenses related to the bribery charges –- at the time, a years-long FBI investigation.

Several seasoned defense attorneys in the state said they could not recall another public corruption case involving an elected official that was handled by public defenders. Currie is due in court Friday for his initial appearance.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

twitter.com/bykowicz

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