Treasurer for state senator going to jail

Harris stole more than $166,000 from Currie campaign

April 18, 2011|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

The longtime treasurer to state Sen. Ulysses Currie sobbed in court Monday after an Anne Arundel County judge sentenced her to a year in jail for stealing more than $166,000 in campaign donations.

Olivia Harris, 65, pleaded guilty to theft in February. Before she was sentenced, she asked the judge for leniency.

"I'd like to apologize and say how sorry I am," she said. "I have, for all of my life, been an upstanding citizen. ... I'm remorseful for what I did."

State prosecutors opened a probe into Currie's campaign spending after a Baltimore Sun article raised questions about payments he made to a private law firm to defend him during a federal bribery investigation. State law does not allow campaign funds to be used for such purposes.

Upon opening Currie's books, investigators found much of his campaign account gone: It held less than $90,000, even though his campaign reports indicated that he should have had tens of thousands of dollars more.

Senior Assistant State Prosecutor Shelly S. Glenn asked Circuit Judge Paul A. Hackner for jail time, saying campaign donors should have confidence that their money will be spent as intended.

"You see people scraping together $25 donations," she said. "They do so because they feel strongly and want their voices to be heard."

Glenn said Harris spent some of the stolen money gambling with friends and family at Dover Downs in Delaware and Harrah's and Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, N.J. Officers who raided her Upper Marlboro home found VIP cards to casinos. As part of the sentence, she will have to be evaluated for a gambling addiction.

Harris said in court that she used most of the money to pay household bills, including medical expenses. She has had breast cancer twice since 2007, her attorney said.

But Hackner focused on the gambling when he sentenced her.

He said it was "hard to swallow" the notion that Harris needed the money to pay medical bills since records show she withdrew money from the campaign when she "found herself in a casino."

"It is not a pittance," he said, referring to the stolen money.

He sentenced her to five years but suspended all but 12 months. She will also have to pay the money back — she returned $50,000 Monday.

Harris wore a brown suit with a long skirt for her court appearance. She stood and asked the judge for "mercy."

"I have really suffered and understood what it is not to obey the law," Harris said.

She sobbed when a sheriff put handcuffs around her wrists and led her away. The sheriff handed her a tissue.

Her husband was in court, but he declined to speak to reporters.

Harris was Currie's treasurer for 16 years, including the eight years he spent as chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. The panel oversees the state's $14.6 billion budget and developed the framework for Maryland's gambling program.

She left his employment in August, days before the state prosecutor's office charged her.

Currie has been charged with bribery and mail fraud in an unrelated federal case. The charges stem from legislation he pushed on behalf of a grocery chain in his district while he was receiving payment from the chain. That trial is set to begin in the fall.

annie.linskey@baltsun.com

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