Thursday, September 29, 2011

Dueling Anonymous Lawmakers on the Trial of Senator Ulysses Currie // Plus, A Quick Summary of the Case

UPDATE: The Gazette has an interesting analysis of whether the Prince George's Delegation will lose influence over these scandals. The experts seem to conclude: "Not really."

The investigation of Senator Ulysses Currie of Prince George's has loomed like a cloud over Annapolis. But now that the criminal trial has begun, Maryland Juice wanted to find out what this case was all about. After poking around, we summarized the case below and asked two anonymous legislators to comment on the severity of the charges: one from a legal perspective, and one from a political perspective.

The Sun's Annie Linskey covered the opening statements, which provide a decent overview of the question facing jurors:
"This is a case about a politician who took bribes," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Gavin. Currie, she said, "sold the power of his office for nearly a quarter of a million dollars to two corporate executives...."

Defense attorneys noted that Currie failed to deliver favorable results for most of the projects outlined by the prosecutors....

They also argued that Currie and the executives did not show any intent to take or give a bribe, key to proving a bribery charge. They pointed to letters between Currie and Shoppers executives that formalized an employment arrangement and noted that Currie paid taxes on money he received. The arrangement was out in the open for anyone to see, defense attorneys said.
It sounds to me like the meat of the case is as follows (please correct me if I am framing this incorrectly):
In Maryland, legislators serve part-time and most have other jobs. Mr. Currie had a job as a consultant for Shoppers Food Warehouse and also served in the State Senate. The Senate job paid $43,500/year, and the Shoppers job paid a commission per meeting he was able to setup for his clients -- ultimately yielding about $250,000. Mr. Currie and Shoppers had a legitimate services contract and all taxes were paid. However, Mr. Currie did not report his employment by Shoppers to the State. As a result, every contact he made on behalf of Shoppers is now seen with suspicion. Additionally, in dealing with other officials, Mr. Currie did not state that he was acting on behalf of Shoppers. He made numerous contacts to state officials on behalf of Shoppers Food Warehouse projects that needed State assistance. Many of his efforts were unsuccessful.
If I understand this correctly, had Mr. Currie filled out his ethics forms and wore a Shoppers Food nametag at all times, everything he did (no matter how shady it looks) would have been legal, right? Strangely, it seems that would mean Mr. Currie could have been better off being more blatant in his disregard for conflicts of interest. This paradox explains why Maryland Juice thinks voters are often wrong to "punish" politicians with low or part-time pay. I would rather have a full-time, adequately compensated legislature, with a ban on outside employment. This is because the goal should be to eliminate conflicts of interest, not to simply disclose them. More on that issue in the future.

The Currie paradox here also helps explain the seemingly conflicting reactions from two Maryland lawmakers (both Democrats from Montgomery):
Comment 1: As for the Currie trial, as an attorney myself, anytime you're facing federal charges, no plea is reached, and you proceed all the way to trial, its a very serious matter.  However, from the beginning, this struck me as a prosecutorial overreach and more a case of a serious state campaign finance disclosure violation/state ethics violation than a federal bribery case.  Not entirely sure why the FBI got involved but the chances for acquittal are fairly high in my view which is very unusual in cases like this.

Comment 2: As to Currie, I'm not enough of a lawyer to know whether he is going down, but I hope to hell he does. What we're seeing is a conflict between two political ideologies in PG - those who think the people exist to serve them, and those who think elected officials exist to serve the people. In the former list you have Currie, Jack and Leslie Johnson, and now Tiffany Alston. In the latter group you have folks like Rushern Baker, Justin Ross, Jolene Ivey, Eric Olson, etc. It's good guys and baddies, plain and simple.
One thing is clear to Maryland Juice -- whether or not Mr. Currie goes to jail, the legislature should not divorce the broader ethics problems from their own part-time status and culture of outside employment. Obviously now would not be an opportune moment to be raising legislative pay, but this must be on the long-term agenda. Ironically, it takes a lot of courage to vote yourself a pay raise!


  1. I couldn't agree more with your suggestion that the type of government we have lends itself to the type of problem we now face. If you think back to just last year with Senator Pinskey who chairs the joint committee in the General Assembly that was charged with a role in deciding Maryland's Race to the Top goals, some blasted him for a conflict of interest because he also works for a teacher's union. Now personally I think that if we are going to have a judiciary committee than most of the committee should have a legal background. If you have a health committee most of the members should know about public health. The same is the case for education. However I agree that having these people directly working on a committee that directly impacts their field of work is a problem.

    Finally however I wanted to address your second comment. "In the former list you have Currie, Jack and Leslie Johnson, and now Tiffany Alston". Delegate Alston's conduct, if proven to have happened, would be wrong, but it is also wrong to associate her conduct with that of Jack or Leslie. Her conduct involves private campaign money and not a dime of public dollars. To say she is of the mindset that the people exist to serve her is just wrong. I understand that a lot of progressive voters in Maryland are happy to see this sad turn of events for her because in some way a few believe this helps their cause on equality issues. Delegate Alston will have to answer for these charges as she must but to throw them all together with those of Jack and Leslie as if she used her official position to benefit herself is to mislead the public.

  2. I'm not sure why part-time status would have anything to do with corruption.

    I think most state-legislatures and municipal councils in this country are part-time. The vast majority of them seem to be able to resist the allure of bribery. We should expect no less from Maryland politicians.