Jury selected in robocall case

A Baltimore jury will hear opening statements Tuesday in a criminal case filed against a former gubernatorial aide charged with violating election laws by allegedly orchestrating a campaign to suppress black votes.

The aide to former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., 55-year-old Paul Schurick, faces three counts of conspiracy and one count each of election fraud and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors accuse him of being behind anonymous, automated calls to voters made before polls closed in last year's contest between Ehrlich and Gov. Martin O'Malley to persuade Democrats, primarily blacks, to stay home.

Before jurors were selected Monday, the Baltimore Circuit Court judge hearing the case, Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill, acknowledged that at least one, and possibly two, of the robocalls went to his house and that his wife answered the phone the first time. He did not recuse himself, and attorneys did not ask him to.

The jury is made up of five black women, two black men, three white women and two white men.

Even before attorneys begin presenting their sides to the jury, the case has become rife with political intrigue.

Schurick's attorney, A. Dwight Pettit, persuaded the judge to uphold a subpoena for Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. The Maryland Democratic congressman recorded counter-robocalls to tell people they still had time to vote. A spokesman for Cummings' campaign said he might testify Tuesday.

Pettit said he wants to question Cummings, who has criticized the alleged suppression effort, on the timing of the two sets of robocalls, saying outside the courtroom that he found it "ironic" they came so close together and suggested he might explore whether the two sides coordinated efforts.

"Call it investigatory curiosity," Pettit said of calls from the Cummings side. "Who authorized it? Who made it? Who paid for it?"

Pettit could also use Cummings to introduce Schurick's co-defendant, Julius Henson, a longtime political operative being tried separately in the case, as a worker for both sides of the political spectrum. Henson worked for Cummings' campaign in 1996.

A spokesman for the Cummings campaign, Michael Christianson, called Pettit's move an attempt to confuse jurors. The robocalls from Cummings' people "were made to set the matter straight, that people still needed to get out and vote," Christianson said. "The lawyers can come up with lots of attempted theories, that maybe Julius Henson was working for both sides. That's understandable for someone who doesn't understand politics, but that's not how it works."

Pettit said he planned to call as many as a dozen witnesses to testify about the facts in his case, and as many as 30 character witnesses. Among them, he said, will most likely be Ehrlich.

Prosecutors allege that people affiliated with Ehrlich's campaign made more than 112,000 anonymous calls to voters before polls had closed, saying that O'Malley and President Barack Obama had been "successful" and that they could "relax" and watch TV.

The prosecutors point to a "Schurick doctrine" with its goal "to promote confusion, emotionalism and frustration among African-American Democrats."

Pettit said he has no problems with Fletcher-Hill hearing the case even though at least one robocall went to the judge's house. The judge did not detail the second call.

"The judge said he could render a fair and impartial trial," Pettit said. "That's all we can ask."

The trial for Henson was postponed this month when Baltimore Circuit Judge Charles J. Peters recused himself because he had recently been appointed by O'Malley.

The governor appointed Fletcher-Hill in February 2009, but the judge won election in 2010 and now serves until 2025.


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