Currie Defense Fund On Hold
Organizers of a legal defense fund established to help Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Prince George's) underwrite his attorney's fees have changed course, suspending fundraising until the mid-April end of the legislative session.
Currie has hired two high-profile attorneys to assist him during an ongoing federal investigation of his work as a consultant for Lanham-based Shoppers Food and Pharmacy. The chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee intervened with state agencies repeatedly on issues of interest to the company while he was working for Shoppers. He did not disclose the consulting work on his state ethics forms.
A grand jury has been convened to examine the relationship.
Under Maryland ethics laws, Currie can accept donations for his legal fees but he cannot solicit them. To ensure he does not have to, friends joined together and launched a website--now suspended--for the fund in December.
Last month, a fundraising appeal was mailed to several hundred people, including some lawmakers. The donation request drew some questions because it came during the session, a time when lawmakers are legally forbidden from raising campaign cash.
Lawyer and pastor Bobby G. Henry Jr., a lead organizer of the effort, said the law does not prohibit giving defense fund donations during the session. But he said the fund's trustees decided to delay their efforts until April anyhow, to avoid any perceptions of impropriety. He said the few checks received by the fund so far were being returned.
"What happened is some of the people got the letters and they were perplexed," he said. "That's what led us to say we need to take quick decisive action. Boom. That raised the senator's stock, if you will."
Henry continued: "Could we collect the money? Yes, we could. Could we go on when no one else could--that was the only game in town? We could. But we did not want that advantage. We didn't think that worked in the senator's advantage. April's not that far away."
Henry said Currie is not directly involved with the effort and had no role in making the decision, though he has been informed of it.
Henry also said the trustees learned that the solicitation letter, sent out by a contractor, had not included a disclaimer to potential donors that explained Maryland's rules about who can give to such a fund: Anyone who has a financial interest in the work of the legislature greater than the average person is barred from giving. Lobbyists are specifically forbidden.
Henry said some lobbyists and others received the letter. He would not name the person hired to write and distribute the letters, indicating that though errors had been made, he did not want to hurt the contractor's future business. "The person made an honest mistake. I wouldn't want to affect their ability to earn a living in the future," he said.
Future letters will explain the rules. Henry said potential donors will then have to decide for themselves whether they are allowed to give. He said he is working closely with General Assembly ethics counsel William Somerville to ensure all rules are followed and that he intends to the fund to be entirely transparent--a policy he said he believed would help Currie.
"The whole idea is to make sure he gets a fair shot at justice," Henry said.
Somerville confirmed that there is no legal problem with fundraising during the session but said he understood there was a feeling there could be an "appearance" problem.
Somerville also said he believes the fund's organizers must try as hard as they can not to solicit donations from prohibited givers. He said a disclaimer in a letter is not enough.
"It's incumbent on the people running the fund to the extent possible to screen for people who cannot give," he said.
March 2, 2009; 10:51 AM ET
Categories: General Assembly , Prince George's County , Rosalind Helderman
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