Common Cause Calls for Currie Censure

… After acquittal, watchdog calls for legislative sanction …

By Michael Dresser and Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

9:12 PM EST, November 9, 2011

A leading government watchdog organization has called on the Maryland Senate to censure state Sen. Ulysses Currie, the once-powerful budget committee chairman who was acquitted of political corruption charges this week.

Susan Wichmann, executive director of Maryland Common Cause, said Wednesday that the Prince George’s County Democrat deserves punishment for his failure to disclose his employment by Shoppers Food Warehouse at a time when he was intervening with state officials on the grocery chain’s behalf. She joins a chorus — including jurors who found Currie not guilty of federal extortion and bribery charges — who say it appears Currie ran afoul of ethical standards.

“Maryland citizens should expect high ethical standards from their elected officials, and the Senate needs to hold its members accountable when they fail to meet those standards,” Wichmann said.

Common Cause also said the case highlighted the need to strengthen state laws — in particular the group is pushing for a bill that would require ethics filings be filed electronically to make them more timely and more widely available. In addition, she said, legislators should examine whether further sanctions, including criminal penalties, are needed when a lawmaker fails to disclose an outside interest.

Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, also suggested that the legislature consider whether to require a lawmaker to disclose any outside interests he or she might be representing when contacting an agency official.

Within hours after the verdict in the Currie case Tuesday, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics should look into the senator’s conduct.

Wichmann said the committee shouldn’t wait until the legislative session in January to begin an investigation. “There’s no reason they couldn’t begin their work on this now,” she said.

There is precedent for launching an investigation before the 90-day regular session begins in mid-January. William G. Somerville, the General Assembly’s ethics counsel, said that before former state Sen. Larry Young was expelled in 1998 on corruption charges, the committee started its investigation the preceding December, before other lawmakers reported to Annapolis.

Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said the entire Senate should take action on Currie. “The evidence does suggest that what he did, if not criminal, is unethical,” he said.

Norris noted that Young, a Baltimore Democrat, was expelled after reports in The Baltimore Sun that he used his public position to enrich his private businesses.

“I would expect the Senate might take similar action with respect to Currie — except that Currie is very well-liked by his colleagues, and that may mitigate the penalty,” he said.

Asked Wednesday whether he had any reaction to Common Cause calling for him to be censured, Currie said, “No, no, I don’t.”

Reached by phone at his home, Currie had the same answer when asked if he has any idea what his future is in the legislature.

Somerville said the ethics committee’s role is to determine the facts and make a recommendation to the member’s chamber and its presiding officer on possible discipline.

If the Senate finds a member violated ethics rules, its potential sanctions range from a reprimand, the mildest action, to censure to expulsion. Somerville noted that a presiding officer — the Senate president or House speaker — can also switch a member’s committee assignments.

Wichmann, the Common Cause director, stopped short of calling on the Senate to impose its strongest possible sanction on Currie — expulsion. But she said the group would not oppose harsher discipline. “We wouldn’t object to expulsion, but at this point we’re not calling for expulsion,” she said.

Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., co-chairman of the ethics committee and a Baltimore County Democrat, said it was too early to say what the panel would do in Currie’s case or when it would begin its work. However, he said that when a presiding officer refers a matter to the committee, it usually holds hearings.

Currie, along with two co-defendants, was found not guilty on all counts after a six-week trial when a U.S. District Court jury in Baltimore concluded that his actions on behalf of Shoppers did not reach the level of federal crimes.

As part of Currie’s defense, his lawyers conceded that the veteran senator had a conflict of interest in representing the grocery chain, telling the jury during closing arguments that state officials — rather than federal prosecutors — should handle the matter.

A Maryland politician “having a conflict of interest does not violate federal law,” assistant federal public defender Joseph L. Evans said on the final day of the trial, saying that the case “does not belong in this courtroom.” He pointed specifically to Currie’s involvement in legislation that allowed the transfer of a liquor license from one store to another, saying the senator “shouldn’t have voted” on it in 2005.

Evans reiterated the sentiment Tuesday, after Currie’s acquittal resolved the federal criminal claims. “There are issues for the General Assembly” to consider, Evans said — “conflict-of-interest issues.”

Jurors also said afterward that Currie’s actions appeared to be unethical and suggested that fellow lawmakers take up the matter.

Senate Minority Leader E. J. Pipkin said Wednesday that Miller’s decision to refer the matter to the joint ethics committee was appropriate. The Eastern Shore Republican said he would defer to the Senate president on the timing of the committee’s action.

Pipkin described the Currie matter as a “personal tragedy” and said it was “way too early” to say what discipline might be appropriate.

Rosenberg, the Baltimore Democrat, said there is a distinction between actions a lawmaker takes to intervene on behalf of constituents and those taken on behalf of an employer or client. He cited the example of a vacant grocery store where he and his 41st District colleagues urged city officials to waive the condemnation costs to the clear the way for redevelopment to improve the neighborhood.

“We go to bat on the community’s behalf,” he said. “That’s a part of the job — to advocate on behalf of your constituents.”

But when a legislator is representing somebody else as part of his or her outside work, Rosenberg said, it’s the lawmaker’s responsibility to disclose that fact. “If what you’re doing is appropriate, don’t keep it a secret,” he said. “You should make it clear to everybody.”

Rosenberg said bureaucrats are especially responsive when the lawmaker contacting them is chairman of a committee or a subcommittee overseeing their budgets.

At the time he intervened with state officials for various actions being sought by Shoppers, Currie was chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee — one of the most powerful positions in Annapolis. Among other things, testimony showed that he spoke with the head of the State Highway Administration about Shoppers-related matters, including getting a stoplight installed at a location where the company wanted one.

That official, former highway administrator Neil J. Pedersen, said Currie never informed him that he was intervening on behalf of anyone other than his constituents. Pedersen also said Currie’s power over his agency’s budget influenced how he handled the senator’s requests.

Currie stepped down as chairman after he was indicted, and Miller indicated that he has no immediate plans to reinstate him. He remains a member of the budget panel.

For now, Somerville said, legislators are required to complete a filing with the State Ethics Commission detailing sources of outside income. He said lawmakers must also file specific declarations of possible conflicts of interest, stating whether they believe they can vote on related issues.

In the case of Currie, neither had been filed, Somerville said.

The ethics counsel said the ethics commission can levy civil fines for failures to make proper disclosures. The legislature cannot impose fines, he said.

Somerville said nothing in state law allows criminal penalties for disclosure violations.

Sun reporter Tricia Bishop contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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