Senator Currie brings up bad memories.

The other day I tweeted that Maryland State Senator Ulysses Currie of Prince George’s County was a “self-serving piece of crap” in response to the announcement that he had abruptly rescinded his resignation from the State Senate.  Calling Currie a piece of crap was harsh and unnecessary – have I learned nothing from our president-elect about the use of Twitter?  I will say in my own defense that this latest story about Currie rubbed me the wrong way.  I will explain.

First of all, I did not believe him when he said that what caused him to change his mind was the lack of civility among those seeking to fill the remainder of his term.  Secondly, and most importantly, the announcement by Currie reminded me of what I regard as one of the most pathetic and maddening episodes in Maryland’s long history of political scandal.

When Currie, 79, submitted his resignation he explained that his failing health would not allow him to complete his term ending in 2018 and that he simply did not have the strength to do the job.  In rescinding his resignation he stated that he was doing so primarily because he couldn’t tolerate the lack of civility among the candidates seeking to be chosen by the Democratic State Central Committee to serve out his term.  Currie said the succession battle “has created a level of divisiveness and discord I have rarely seen in Prince George’s County and which I cannot allow to continue.”

Oh, and Currie also said that he had wanted his wife, the Rev. Shirley Gravely-Currie, to take his seat as a caretaker until the 2018 election.  According to Currie she was the only person who “came forward without the intention of using the appointment to gain an election advantage over others.”

Sorry, Senator, but I don’t believe that the main reason behind the withdrawal of your resignation was the bickering.  I believe that you were disappointed when you found out that your “keep it in the family” succession plan wasn’t going over very well and that your wife did not have the votes to get appointed to the seat.  You aren’t the player in state politics that you were a decade ago and once you submitted your resignation you lost whatever influence you had left.

By all accounts Currie, a former school teacher, is unfailingly pleasant and has been a model of civility during his 30 years in the General Assembly.  He makes it a point to try to get along with everyone and is liked by virtually everyone who meets him.  Before his fall from grace he also was one of the most powerful legislators in Annapolis.

In 2010 Curry was indicted on federal charges  that he took more than $245,000 in bribes to use his position and influence to do favors for a grocery chain, Shoppers Food Warehouse.  The charges stemmed from revenue from a “consulting contract” with Shoppers that Currie failed to disclose as required by state ethics law on financial disclosure forms.  The financial disclosure forms are filed annually by legislators and Currie did not disclose his relationship with Shoppers in any of the five annual submissions covering the period that he received money from Shoppers.

State officials testified at trial that Currie’s failure to disclose that he was working for Shoppers led them to react to his requests on behalf of Shoppers’ as if he was making them in his capacity as a state legislator rather than as a lobbyist for Shoppers.  Prosecutors argued that Currie’s failure to report his employment by Shoppers was evidence that Currie realized that the arrangement with Shoppers was illicit and that he was taking bribes rather than doing the “normal” favors that legislators do for constituents.

Although prosecutors described the arrangement with Shoppers as a “pay-to-play” scheme Currie was acquitted of the charges by a federal jury.  A number of jurors later commented that Currie’s wrongdoing was an ethical lapse for the General Assembly to deal with rather than a crime.  As one juror observed:  “There was clearly a conflict of interest, questionable stuff that needs to be looked at.”

Most observers attributed his unexpected acquittal in large part to the parade of current and former state officials who went before the jury and attested to Currie’s reputation and character.  Character witnesses included U.S. House Minority Whip and former president of the Maryland Senate Steny Hoyer and former governor Robert Ehrlich.  Some saw the number of high-ranking officials willing to testify on Currie’s behalf as a testament to the goodwill that Currie had accumulated through years of public service; others saw it as a nauseating example of the so-called “culture of corruption” that prevails in Annapolis.

Personally, what I found most offensive about the character testimony was what it said about state government.  Timothy Maloney, a highly regarded lawyer and influential former state delegate, was the first character witness called by the defense and Maloney implied that dimwittedness could be behind Currie’s failure to adhere to state ethics laws.

Maloney’s unforgettable testimony was that Currie was not among the more intelligent members of the General Assembly:  “No one would call him smart,” was how Maloney described Currie to the jury.  He’s just not very astute when it comes to the mechanics of legislating,” Maloney further explained. “I think most legislators would tell you the same thing. . . . It hurts me to say that, because he’s a wonderful, wonderful person.”

Currie was not just some backbencher.  At the time of Maloney’s testimony Currie had been in the General Assembly for 24 years, the last eight of which he was chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, one of the most important positions in the General Assembly.

Defense attorneys tried to walk Maloney’s characterization back a bit, with other witnesses describing Currie as disorganized and sloppy with paperwork rather than as just plain stupid.  Currie’s attorneys argued to the jury that Currie was not trying to hide an illegal arrangement with Shoppers; he was just too forgetful and careless to correctly fill out financial disclosure forms.

Currie was appointed to the post because he was a loyal Democratic foot soldier in the General Assembly who never made waves.  The man who appointed him, Senate President Mike Miller, said after Currie was acquitted:  “Senator Currie is a good and decent man.  He may have made some mistakes, but he did not commit a crime.”  In the upper reaches of state government loyalty often is valued above all else, including competence.

I was not upset that the jury acquitted Currie on the bribery charges.  Juries are there to make decisions and generally do the best job that they can.  I was angry at the idea that a person who is not very smart and had not learned the “mechanics of legislating” despite a lengthy career in the General Assembly could be named to lead the Senate committee charged with considering all legislation that affects the state’s operating and capital budgets.

I was dumbfounded when his friends and former friends in the General Assembly came forward to defend him by matter-of-factly describing the former chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee as too forgetful or disorganized – or as too stupid – to abide by state ethics law.  The whole episode had a surreal and distasteful quality to it.  Certainly Currie’s actions were not the most venal in the long history of political scandal in Maryland but the story of his rise to prominence in the General Assembly and his trial and acquittal painted a singularly unflattering portrait of state politics.

So, Senator Currie, I regret calling you a piece of crap; that fails to give you credit for rising from the humblest of beginnings and treating people with dignity and respect during your entire career.  I don’t regret calling you self-serving, however, and it is time for you to take the pension that you earned for your 30 years in the General Assembly and enjoy your retirement.  You are a nice man but, despite your protestations, the citizens of your district and the state will get along fine without you or your wife.

December 5, 2016

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