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'Relax' robocalls civil and criminal cases to proceed

ElectionsJustice SystemExecutive BranchBarack Obama

A federal judge ruled Thursday that a civil complaint about allegedly fraudulent robocalls made on behalf of gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign may proceed at the same time as state criminal cases.

Political operative Julius Henson, a consultant to the Republican former governor, has acknowledged ordering a batch of Election Day robocalls. Prosecutors say the recorded message urged Democratic voters in Baltimore and Prince George's County to "relax" and stay home because Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and President Barack Obama "have already been successful." In fact, the polls were still open.

Henson and Rhonda Russell, an employee at his Universal Elections company, are defendants in a federal civil case brought late last year by Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. The defendants' attorney, Edward Smith Jr., had sought to stay the civil proceedings because Henson also is a defendant in a new criminal case.

Last month, State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt secured grand jury indictments against Henson and top Ehrlich aide Paul Schurick. An arraignment is scheduled for July 18. Each faces three counts of conspiracy to violate Maryland election laws, one count of attempting to influence a voter's decision and one count of failing to provide an authority line (on campaign material). Schurick is also charged with one count of obstruction of justice.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake denied the defense motion to stay the civil case.

"Other than unfounded attacks on the motives of the Attorney General, the defendants have not explained why a blanket stay of this action is warranted by the existence of a partially parallel criminal indictment brought by the State Prosecutor," she wrote.

Smith, in his motion for a stay, argued that Gansler had "political" reasons to pursue the civil complaint, though he did not elaborate. He also said the witnesses in both cases could be put in a position to violate their right against self-incrimination.

Gansler, a Democrat who was uncontested last year in his bid for a second term as attorney general, is discussed as a potential 2014 gubernatorial contender.

David Paulson, spokesman for the attorney general, said the office is "pleased that we'll proceed as planned" with the civil complaint.

If convicted, Henson and Russell could face millions of dollars in fines. Gansler alleges that 112,000 robocalls went out on election night, and each carries a possible penalty of $500 under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

julie.bykowicz@baltsun.com

twitter.com/bykowicz

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