Saying the offenses strike at the "values of this nation," a judge sentenced Paul E. Schurick, the campaign manager of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., to home detention and community service Thursday for approving automated Election Day telephone calls to keep black voters from the polls.
The sentencing went forward even as Schurick's attorneys sought a new trial, alleging that the credibility of a key prosecution witness has been undermined. Baltimore Circuit Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill spared Schurick prison time by suspending a one-year sentence and forgoing fines.
He sentenced Schurick to 30 days of home detention with electronic monitoring, four years of unsupervised probation and 500 hours of community service to be divided equally between areas targeted by the robocalls — Baltimore City and Prince George's County.
Fletcher-Hill said the sentence needed "to send a message that influence and deceit in elections will not be tolerated. … Even in the most wide-open political campaigns, there are borders that cannot be crossed."
Meanwhile, Schurick's attorneys said the woman who recorded the robocall and had the messages sent to voters had made a similar recording using gay slurs in a District of Columbia election and had been investigated by that city's police. Those allegations, contained in a state prosecutor's memorandum made public in court documents, surfaced after the trial had concluded in December.
The defense motion also says that the woman, Rhonda Russell, was in a relationship with Julius Henson, the political consultant who prosecutors say wrote the Maryland robocall's script, and that computers used for the calls were tampered with before agents with the state prosecutor seized them.
Defense attorneys say all of that adds up to a conspiracy that could mitigate Schurick's role, and that prosecutors should have known about and disclosed it before the trial.
State Prosecutor Emmit C. Davitt said he told defense attorneys two days after he learned about the information. He added, "We don't think [the information] changes anything."
Lawyers for both sides agreed to hold a hearing dealing with the witness at a later date. That allowed sentencing to proceed for Schurick, 55.
Schurick authorized the call that went out to 112,000 Democratic households, telling voters to "relax." It said O'Malley and President Barack Obama, who was not on the ballot, had been successful and there was no need to vote.
Prosecutors say the calls were engineered by campaign consultant Julius Henson, who goes on trial next week on charges similar to those Schurick faced. Prosecutors said Henson dubbed the scheme the "Schurick doctrine" to "promote confusion, emotionalism and frustration" among black voters. The intent, prosecutors said, was to have "African-American voters stay home."
Despite the calls, Gov. Martin O'Malley was re-elected.
Fletcher-Hill said Schurick's insistence that he was a bit player in a scheme beyond his control was "not credible." And he chided the former communications director for Ehrlich for contributing to the public's distrust of politicians.
But at the end of the hearing, Fletcher-Hill turned to Schurick, his family, friends and political supporters, and said he would consider probation before judgment once Schurick had completed a substantial portion of the community service. If granted, that would open the possibility of wiping the conviction off his record.
"You were wrong, but that does not make you a bad person," the judge said. He added, "I condemn the act. I do not condemn you."
Schurick, in his first public comments on the case, said he had "made a decision that destroyed my legacy" and ended a 30-year career in state politics. "I'm out of business."
Speaking in a soft, steady voice, hands in his pockets, Schurick asked to be judged on a lifetime of public service — not on what he called a split-second decision during a roadside cellphone call in the frantic final moments of a lagging campaign.
"Campaigns are not just about ideals, where the best person wins," Schurick said. "To be successful, you need to rely on strategy and tactics. Nothing is more important than getting your supporters to the polls."
But in the end, he said, "It was the consultant's recommendation, but it was my decision. It was wrong. … It was a profound personal failure."
Outside the courtroom, Schurick stuck to his position that his intent was to attract black voters to Ehrlich. "I know what was in my heart," he told reporters.
Prosecutors had recommended home detention and five years' supervised probation, along with 500 hours of community service and a fine not lower than $7,000.
"The sentence is about more than Mr. Schurick," said Deputy State Prosecutor Thomas M. McDonough. "It is also about the legal principle for which Mr. Schurick was prosecuted." He said that public trust has been undermined and a "message must be sent."
But, McDonough told the court, "There is nothing gained by sending Mr. Schurick to the Baltimore City Detention Center."
More than 125 people sent letters to the court supporting Schurick and asking that he not be sent to jail. Judith Sachwald, who ran the state's parole and probation agency from 2000 to 2007, testified that Schurick could benefit from alternative sentencing.
Noting that, "sadly, the United States incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world," she said that even putting Schurick on electronic monitoring was too much. Testifying for the first time for a defendant, Sachwald said that monitoring was intended to keep violent criminals in check, not as a substitute for prison.
"The Division of Parole and Probation is overworked," she said. "Having to supervise somebody who doesn't need supervision would take away from their ability to provide supervision to people who are a threat to safety."
A friend of Schurick's, attorney Zelig Robinson, testified that the political operative "has suffered enough."
He said the conviction has reverberated throughout Maryland's political establishment, "and nobody is going to forget it." Schurick, he added, "has become a victim of his own crime, a poster child for political machinations. That's enough."
But the morning's courtroom drama and contrition were overshadowed outside by Schurick's request for a new trial. His lawyers said they were stunned when, on Jan. 26, prosecutors turned over a memo from the state prosecutors.
Two days earlier, according to the memo that is now part of the court file, John C. Poliks, a special agent for the state prosecutor, met with 51-year-old Andre Glen, who approached authorities and said he was the ex-boyfriend of the woman who recorded the robocall, Rhonda Russell.
"Glen was living with Russell at the time and was present when Russell created and sent the robo-calls," the memo says. It identifies Glen as a convicted drug dealer who spent time in prison in 1989 — confirmed independently in court records — and who says he came forward "to tell the truth."
According to the memo, Glen said that he had removed the computer Russell used to create the robocall, as well as a laptop owned by Russell's employer, Universal Elections, from the house several days a warrant was served. He said he returned the computers just before authorities conducted the search.
The memo also has Glen countering Russell's trial testimony. She had testified that the robocalls were intended as reverse psychology — to drive up the black vote for Ehrlich rather than suppress it for O'Malley.
She testified that she only made calls to Democrats because she "didn't want to do the work." But Glen told officials that she was "not being lazy" and was taking notes on a call from Henson.
He also said Russell recorded the robocall on a computer in the basement of her house and asked him, "Hey hon, how does this sound?" According to the memo, Glen told officials that he warned her not to send the message "because it clearly was intended to suppress the vote."
Defense attorney A. Dwight Pettit said he has many questions for Glen and prosecutors. "As a matter of due process, the defendant has a lawful right to question Mr. Glen under oath about what he believes the 'truth' is," the court motion says.
A spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington did not return calls seeking comment. Glen, reached by phone Thursday, also declined to comment. Russell could not be reached for comment. Neither Henson nor his attorney returned calls for comment.
Davitt, who has not filed a response to Schurick's motion, declined to say whether the allegations by Glen have been confirmed. A date for the hearing on the motion for a new trial has not been set.