Maryland State Sen. Ulysses Currie, chairman of a legislative committee that steers $32 billion in state spending, is accused of illegally using his influence to benefit a grocery store chain, the U.S. attorney's office announced Wednesday.
Currie, a 73-year-old Prince George's County Democrat was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of bribery, conspiracy, mail fraud and extortion.
The U.S. attorney's office also said former Shoppers Food Warehouse executives -- including former President William J. White and former vice president for real estate development R. Kevin Small -- have been indicted in connection with a scheme from 2002 to 2008 to pay Currie.
"Government officials cross a bright line when they accept payments in return for using the authority of their office, whether they take cash in envelopes or checks labeled as consulting payments," Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said.
A separate criminal information was filed against Shoppers Food Warehouse Corp., which has agreed to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement to pay a $2.5 million penalty.
Currie had been under federal investigation for more than two years for working as a consultant for Shoppers Food Warehouse without disclosing the work in financial disclosure forms. Federal prosecutors allege the payments grew from $3,000 a month in 2003 to $7,600 a month in 2007. The payments were never reported on five annual ethics forms.
His lawyer, Dale P. Kelberman, said in an e-mailed statement Wednesday that the charges are unfounded and Currie will plead not guilty.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said in a statement Wednesday that he had talked to Currie, who will step aside as chairman.
"He believes that he will be unable to dedicate himself fully to serving as chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee as he works to prove his innocence," Miller said in a statement. "As such, he informed me that he will step aside as chairman until this matter is resolved."
Miller said Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, D-Baltimore County, will serve as the acting chairman.
Supervalue Inc., the Minneapolis-based parent company of Shoppers, said in a statement the employees named in the indictment are no longer with the company.
"We promptly ended the relationship with the senator after these actions were revealed and we have cooperated fully with the government's investigation," company spokesman Luke Friedrich said.
An 18-count indictment alleges that soon after Currie became the chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee in 2002, he asked to be put on the grocery store chain's payroll and agreed to use his office to pursue specific state action to benefit the chain.
The indictment alleges that Currie contacted the administrator of the State Highway Administration repeatedly in 2003 and 2004 relating to the supermarket's request for traffic signals at two stores. Currie also allegedly convened meetings in his Senate office with White and Small and the head of the Maryland Department of Transportation in 2003 in an effort to secure $2 million in public money for a project in a Baltimore mall to reduce his employer's costs in opening a supermarket.
The indictment also alleges that Currie, White and Small used e-mail and facsimile "to carry out the bribery of Chairman Currie." The U.S. attorney's office alleges that Currie extorted $245,816 from the company to obtain his assistance in his official capacity between 2002 and 2008.
The indictment also alleges that White and Currie made false statements to FBI agents during the investigation.
Currie allegedly met with the chairman of the Prince George's County liquor board in 2004, along with Small, about transferring a liquor license from one store to another. Currie also allegedly arranged for another senator to introduce legislation to complete the transfer, and Currie voted on legislation authorizing it on April 8, 2005.
Currie also is accused of convincing government officials in 2006 and 2007 to give up the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission's right to purchase land in Chillum owned by the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority so a portion of the property could be acquired without competitive bidding to expand a supermarket.
Currie, a former teacher, is a prominent lawmaker in Annapolis who was elected to the state Senate in 1994, after serving eight years in the state House. He is running unopposed for his Senate seat in November.
Last week, Currie's campaign reported that he was missing about $180,000 in his campaign account. Gregg Bernstein, a Currie attorney, wrote to the Maryland State Board of Elections that the campaign had only recently discovered the inconsistencies.