Senator Currie to face ethics inquiry in Annapolis

Committee proceedings will likely take place behind closed doors

January 05, 2012|By Michael Dresser, The Baltimore Sun

When Maryland legislators return to Annapolis next week for their annual 90-day legislative session, one of their first tasks will be to decide what to do about Sen. Ulysses Currie's admitted ethical lapses that helped land him in federal court on bribery and extortion charges last year.

Currie, a Prince George's Democrat, was acquitted on all counts in November after a six-week trial, but the case raised multiple issues that must now be addressed by the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics.

Though a date has not been set, the 12 members of the committee are expected to meet early in the session to consider whether Currie violated the rules governing lawmakers' conduct by his admitted failure to disclose more than $250,000 in payments from a grocery chain on whose behalf he was seeking favors from government officials. Under Maryland law, if the committee finds Currie broke the rules, it can recommend penalties ranging from reprimand to censure to expulsion.

The proceedings will be confidential unless he or nine of the 12 members agree to open them. At least one group believes the committee should take that apparently unprecedented step.

Susan Wichmann, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said the watchdog group believes opening the proceedings would help the public understand the process.

"Common Cause is always supportive of making government more transparent in the way that it functions," Wichmann said. She added that because many of the allegations Currie is expected to face have been aired in a public trial, there is little point in keeping them secret now.

But former legislators with a background in ethical issues say they'd be surprised to see either Currie or a supermajority of the committee waive confidentiality.

"I can't imagine that the committee is going to do this," said D. Bruce Poole, a former majority leader of the House of Delegates. Among other concerns, he said, would be that if they open the proceedings in the Currie case, they would come under pressure to do so in all such cases.

During his trial, Currie's defense lawyers admitted that the 74-year-old lawmaker failed to make required disclosures over a five-year period of payments he received from Shoppers Food Warehouse, a company on whose behalf he intervened with high-ranking state officials.

At the time, Currie was chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee — a position in which he had influence over agency budgets.

Currie's lawyers said that while their client may have violated state ethics rules, he did not commit a crime. A Maryland politician "having a conflict of interest does not violate federal law," assistant federal public defender Joseph L. Evans told jurors in his opening statement. Evans said such matters are issues for the General Assembly to consider.

Stacy M. Goodman, counsel to the committee, said the co-chairs of the panel have yet to schedule a date for the meeting.

Goodman said she, other staffers and members of the committee are bound under state law to remain silent about complaints before the committee unless confidentiality is waived. She said the only other people allowed in the hearing room would be the House speaker and Senate president, the target of the complaint, and his or her counsel.

In Currie's case, that is retired Court of Appeals Judge Joseph F. Murphy Jr., who was hired by the senator to handle ethics matters. Murphy said he couldn't comment on whether Currie would agree to waive confidentiality.

Under state law, if the committee were to decide there was no violation, the proceedings would theoretically remain confidential forever, Goodman said, But if the committee found evidence to support charges, it would make a public report to the Senate, which would vote on any proposed punishment.

Poole said his sense is that the legislators are leaning toward a reprimand. He said there's a strong feeling that Currie has already been punished by his loss of a coveted chairmanship and devastating legal expenses. "I think he's extremely well-liked even now," Poole said.

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