Md. power elite close ranks around Currie

Top politicians characterize indicted state senator as honest

October 29, 2011|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

The No. 2 Democrat in the House of Representatives called Ulysses S. Currie a "decent, honest person." A former governor said he is "a gentleman." And Maryland's lieutenant governor described him as a "man of strong integrity."

It was an outpouring fit for an awards ceremony or fundraising dinner. In this case, however, the remarks about the Maryland state senator were delivered from the witness stand at Currie's bribery trial in U.S. District Court.

Politicians elsewhere might be reluctant to stand up for an official accused of corruption. Not here. There is a tradition in Annapolis of standing by a colleague under fire — at least until a verdict is in, sometimes even after a conviction.

"They don't turn against their own," said Donald T. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

In other states, "the standards and the expectations are much, much higher," he said, citing Oregon and Washington, among others.

In Maryland one of the bluest states in the nation officials might perceive that there is little risk at the ballot box. Moreover, the state's history of corruption seems to have made voters less sensitive to ethical lapses, political observers say. Over the past 50 years, major figures have been involved in state political scandals, including Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, forced out of office in a bribery case dating to his days as Baltimore County executive, and former Gov. Marvin Mandel, who went to prison in a mail fraud and racketeering case but whose conviction was later overturned.

"People's ideas of what is normal in politics evolves," said Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.

He listed New Jersey, Illinois and Louisiana as places where voters are scandal-hardened and cynical and believe ethical lapses to be business as usual. In such an environment, standing up for a fellow lawmaker on trial isn't going to cause trouble, he said.

That voters don't mind "is a sign of a bad culture," Gaines said. "That is not what we want."

Four of Maryland's leading elected Democratic officials — Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Reps. Steny H. Hoyer and Elijah E. Cummings, and state Sen. Brian E. Frosh — made headlines in the past two weeks when they appeared in Baltimore as character witnesses for Currie. Even former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, had nice to things to say.

The mix includes current and aspiring Maryland power brokers. Brown is on a short list of potential gubernatorial contenders in 2014. Cummings is often mentioned as a possible successor to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski. Frosh, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has a reputation as one of Maryland's most earnest lawmakers. Hoyer, the House minority whip, is one of the most powerful Democrats in the country.

Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat, is accused of taking $245,000 in bribes from Shoppers Food Warehouse in exchange for using his influence as chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee in Annapolis to push legislation favorable to the supermarket and open doors to top officials spanning two administrations. After being indicted, Currie stepped down as committee chairman to focus on his defense, but he is still a member of the panel.

Currie's defense attorneys acknowledge that the arrangement with Shoppers presented a conflict of interest — the senator never disclosed the relationship on state ethics forms — but contend that his work as a paid consultant does not constitute bribery. The trial has been under way since late September and is expected to go to a jury this week.

Annapolis has seen a number of corruption cases over the years featuring defendants who have not been treated as pariahs.

Mandel, a Democrat, was convicted in 1977 and spent 19 months in federal prison. But President Ronald Reagan pardoned him in 1981, and his conviction was later overturned. Mandel returned to Maryland political circles, and Ehrlich — who called him "an elder statesman" — appointed him to the university system's Board of Regents.

More recently, state Sen. Larry Young, a Baltimore Democrat, was charged in 1998 with using his public position to enrich his private businesses. Maryland senators took what was for them an extraordinary action — they voted to expel Young from the Senate, the first lawmaker in two centuries to be ousted from the body.

Young was later found not guilty in court and now hosts a morning radio show on WOLB-AM.

Seven years later, former state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, was allowed to keep his $192,000 state job as head of the Maryland Injured Workers' Insurance Fund for more than a year after he was indicted in 2005 for his role in a bid-rigging scheme.

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