A federal judge said Monday he will rule by next week whether eight bribery and extortion charges filed against state Sen. Ulysses Currie and two former executives of Shoppers Food Warehouse, which employed Currie as a consultant, will stand.
Defense attorneys argued during a lengthy hearing that the counts were unconstitutionally vague or inappropriate. U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett said he will issue a written opinion on the matter within 10 days.
The validity of the charges was the only issue he declined to immediately settle Monday, during a four-hour, two-part hearing that addressed the defense team's access to information before the scheduled Sept. 26 trial. Bennett said he would allow the defense team to:
• contact the attorneys of two alleged conspirators, who haven't been indicted;
review documents on three computers owned by Shoppers;
obtain a government witness list by Aug. 22; and
develop a jury questionnaire to help weed out politically biased jurors or those who've been tainted by publicity about the case.
The judge refused to hand over details about the basis for a wiretap in the case against Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson, which captured conversations with Currie, a Democrat in the same county. He also denied requests to try the defendants separately, to personally perform a judicial review of the grand jury instructions and to spin off two false-statement counts into a separate trial.
Eight other mail- and wire-fraud charges in the 18-count indictment were dismissed in May, after prosecutors filed a request to "streamline" the case against the 74-year-old legislator and his co-defendants: William J. White and R. Kevin Small, the former president and vice president, respectively, of Shoppers' Maryland division.
If another eight counts are dropped in the case, it would leave only two false-statement charges remaining, one each against Currie and White for comments they made to investigators in 2008, after the FBI raided their homes.
The three defendants are accused of using a public-relations consulting contract with Currie as a cover to pay the Maryland senator $245,000 in bribes over a five-year period for legislative favors and influence beneficial to Shoppers.
Among the acts he is accused of is contacting state officials and agencies — including the secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation, the state's Energy Administration and the State Highway Authority — to ask for various changes on Shoppers' behalf, such as the installation of a new traffic light, the relocation of an MVA office and the delayed implementation of certain revised energy standards.
Defense attorneys contend that Currie wasn't taking bribes, however. He simply failed to disclose conflicts of interest by neglecting to divulge his Shoppers employment on government ethics forms, said Joseph Evans, a federal public defender representing the senator.
Evans added that "virtually nothing that Senator Currie ostensibly did for Shoppers happened … none of it ever went anywhere."
Defense attorneys argued Monday that bribery-related counts in the indictment should be dropped, because they require prosecutors to prove that consulting payments led Currie to alter the performance of his "official [legislative] duties," which aren't expressly defined by the indictment or by Maryland law.
They also asked that an extortion count be dismissed because they claim there is no victim to the charged scheme.
The defendants allegedly "conspired with Shoppers to obtain money from Shoppers with Shoppers consent," Evans said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Leo Wise said the company, which has agreed to pay a $1 million penalty and cooperate with investigators, was a victim of its executives. He also said there was "never any doubt in" the minds of witnesses that Currie was acting in an official capacity when he contacted state officials on behalf of the food company and sent them letters on "Senate letterhead."
"It all supports that he was acting pursuant to his official duties," Wise said, adding that the state may not define what those are, but Currie certainly knows.
"At [the consulting contract's] core," Wise said, "was paying him for official acts and access to his office."