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First Click, Maryland -- Currie indictment fallout

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Thursday, September 2, 2010:

The Agenda

Aaron.jpgMore than two years after federal agents raided the Prince George's County home of Sen. Ulysses Currie, (D) the other shoe dropped. The 18-count indictment -- including allegations of bribery, conspiracy, extortion and mail fraud -- landed Wednesday with a thud that jolted every corner of Maryland's political establishment. Twelve days before the state's primary and eight weeks before its general election, the timing also held ramifications far beyond who presides next year over the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. There are implications and potential shockwaves to come for Prince George's, for lawmaking in Annapolis, for the governor's race, the FBI, and generally for every Marylander concerned about good government. Let's begin ...

Currie.jpgFor Prince George's: As The Post's Maria Glod and John Wagner report today, the indictment caught both county Democrats and Republicans flat footed. Despite the looming investigation, no one from either party stepped forward to oppose Currie before a deadline in July to do so. According to elections officials, that means the only way for another Democrat to get on the ballot would be if Currie withdraws. Republicans, who remain a distinct minority in the county, have no means to get a candidate on either the primary or the Nov. 2 general election ballot. If a candidate from either party -- or both -- decides to mount a campaign against Currie, he or she could only do so as a write-in.

In any normal time, success in that scenario would seem almost unthinkable. Prince George's delegation and its aspiring county lawmakers typically adhere to a strict, if at times hard to follow hierarchy. But Currie's indictment comes at perhaps the most fractured time in Prince George's politics in nearly a decade. A wide-open county executive race has strained allegiances among almost every political faction in the county and some of the law-and-order campaigns for county executive and contested seats in the House of Delegates could easily be rebranded for a Senate run. Anyone interested in qualifying as a write-in candidate has until seven days before the general election to do so.

For the governor's race: Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) issued a statement Wednesday calling Currie a "man of faith and integrity" and said he was "confident [Currie] will be exonerated." Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) who is in a tight race with former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. issued a short statement that offered no such measure of support.

"This is a sad day for the people of Prince George's County and Senator Currie personally," O'Malley said. "People have the right to expect the highest ethical service from their public servants. This is now a matter for our courts to resolve."

Ehrlich campaign spokesman Andy Barth e-mailed me a nearly identical line:

"Bob Ehrlich was saddened to learn of today's news. The citizens of Maryland deserve to know their elected representatives follow the highest ethical standards and put the public's trust first. This is now a matter for the courts to consider."

It's not surprising that either candidate would issue such a measured response. But the development gives Ehrlich a potential opening to marry a message of corruption with his campaign theme that a "monopoly" of Democrats now runs Annapolis. The question is, will Ehrlich seize on the issue? And does he want to spend the money and take the step of running a negative ad to draw attention to the indictment? Ehrlich has claimed new momentum in fundraising with nearly $750,000 in campaign donations in the last 18 days. Will his backers expect an aggressive attack?

If nothing else, Currie's indictment may limit the chairman's ability to help O'Malley with another important, behind-the-scenes task following this month's primary: Uniting Prince George's Democrats to rally behind the governor. At a campaign rally in the county on Saturday in which Currie received a loud round of applause, Lieutenant Gov. Anthony G. Brown said he was concerned about the potential effects of hard fought primary contests and was urging Prince George's Democrats not to wait until a planned unity breakfast in mid-October.

It's more remote, but it's perhaps also worth considering whether the indictment of a prominent Prince George's lawmaker changes the calculus of whether the White House would consider the county an appropriate backdrop should President Obama travel to the state this fall to campaign for O'Malley.

For the FBI: After more than two years and strong indications that at one point the Currie investigation had lost steam, the hefty indictment Wednesday raises questions about whether the FBI's public corruption unit may be working more aggressively to clear a backlog of open investigations into Maryland officials.

The fate of several other FBI investigations in the state remain unanswered, including another into county workings in Prince George's County. In the fall of 2008, teams of FBI agents raided two Prince George's County government buildings in a sweep that made public a federal investigation of a massive development planned near the Greenbelt Metro station. At the time, a source with knowledge of the probe said agents distributed grand jury subpoenas seeking information about a planned 240-acre development, including efforts by developers to rezone the property and secure highway access from the Capital Beltway.

It will also be interesting to see if any Maryland or federal officials question the timing of the indictment by the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office, so close to the election.

For lawmaking and good government in Annapolis: As Glod and Wagner write, "The indictment had immediate repercussions in Annapolis, where Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) announced that Currie would temporarily step down from his coveted position as chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee."

After a legislative session this spring in which few ethics reforms gained support in the General Assembly, will Currie's indictment focus new attention on open government advocates' efforts to force Maryland to match other states in posting lawmakers' financial disclosure information online?

-- Aaron C. Davis

News You Should Know

Unexpected revenue pads state coffers
Maryland closed its budget year that ended in June with $190 million more in the bank than expected after a spike in taxpayer withholdings in May and June. The extra money means the state will have over $600 million in its rainy day fund heading into next year. According to estimates from this spring, lawmakers will face a gap of about $1.5 billion in the budget year that begins next summer. Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) cautioned that the recent revenue uptick only meant that the state's dire budget projections had not fully materialized. He also said recent national economic trends raised serious questions about tough choices needed to balance next year's budget. Nonetheless, the money comes at a fortuitous time for O'Malley, heading into the final two months of his re-election bid. New revenue estimates due out on Sept. 16 may also show the next year's budget gap shrinking by an equal or greater amount.
-- Aaron C. Davis

In first ad, Kratovil stresses independence
"Rep. Frank Kratovil (D) is on the air with his first ad of the 2010 cycle, emphasizing his departures from Democratic party orthodoxy as he seeks a second term in Maryland's 1st district," writes The Post's Ben Pershing. "Kratovil is widely seen as one of the most endangered incumbents in the country, as he represents a district that backed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential race by 19 points. State Sen. Andrew Harris, the 2008 nominee, and businessman Rob Fisher are battling for the Republican nomination in the Sept. 14 primary, with Harris favored to prevail. Kratovil beat Harris by fewer than 3,000 votes last cycle. In his new ad, titled "Independent," Kratovil cites his background as a former prosecutor and points out that he voted against President Obama's health-reform bill as well as the fiscal 2010 budget resolution. He also says -- as some other freshman Democrats have -- that he voted against "the big bank bailout" even though he wasn't yet in office when the Troubled Asset Relief Program was created in 2008." The Maryland GOP produced a YouTube questioning claims in Kratovil's ad.

Ehrlich tailors tax appeal to Montgomery voters
EhrlichMoCo.jpgIn an appeal to Montgomery County residents, former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) is pointing to two tax measures passed by the Democrat-led General Assembly that he said were "the worst" for the jurisdiction: the "tech tax" and the "millionaires' tax," writes The Post's John Wagner. "The 'tech tax' -- a levy on computer services -- was among those adopted during a special session in 2007 called by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to help balance the state budget. After an outcry from the industry, it was repealed in 2008 before taking effect. The 'millionaires' tax' -- a three-year surcharge on the state's high-ended earners -- was adopted in 2008, largely to offset some of the revenue lost by repealing the computer services tax. "That hurt this county more than any other because of your flight of wealth," Ehrlich said Tuesday at a roundtable campaign event in his Montgomery County headquarters on Rockville Pike. Ehrlich is targeting Montgomery this year despite its heavily Democratic tilt, hoping to improve upon lackluster performance in the county in 2002 and 2006. O'Malley aides and Democratic strategists have suggested there is limited room for growth.

--Ehrlich also claimed fresh momentum in fundraising after reports released this month showed him lagging significantly behind Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) in money in the bank. Ehrlich said Tuesday he had raised more than $725,000 during the most recent 18-day reporting period, which ended Sunday. Reports detailing those contributions are due to the State Board of Elections by Friday.

Quotables

rosenstein.jpg"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."
--U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, describing the alleged conduct of Currie and Shoppers as a "pay-to play" approach, saying it undermines public confidence and hurts companies that play by the rules.

"... in a unique position to assist Shoppers in expanding its mission and increasing its bottom line."
-- Sen. Ulysses Currie, (D-Prince George's) in a paper he wrote in September 2007, to justify continued payments from the grocery chain, according to the indictment. Currie called the document "Accomplishments on Behalf of Shoppers," according to court papers.

"Senator Currie has devoted his life to public service and he has been a leader in the culture of compassion for the least fortunate among us. The Government's portrait of Senator Currie as a corrupt politician is completely at odds with all who have known him for nearly 40 years."
-- Currie's attorney, Dale P. Kelberman, said in a statement that the charges are unfounded.

-----

Trust First Click for critical news and analysis you need to navigate Maryland politics. Each Monday and Thursday, First Click brings you The Agenda, a concise, forward-looking analysis of a top development in politics or policy. "News You Should Know" breaks down top stories from across the state. And other features keep you up to speed with power brokers in Annapolis and beyond. Want First Click on the go? Sign up for our free e-mail edition, and get the news delivered to your inbox or mobile device.

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By Aaron C. Davis  |  September 2, 2010; 7:45 AM ET
Categories:  First Click  
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