Two longtime political operatives who worked last year on the gubernatorial campaign of Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. were indicted Thursday and charged with ordering deceptive automated phone calls intended to suppress votes on election night.
Political consultant Julius Henson and campaign manager Paul Schurick each face 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 also is charged with one count of obstruction of justice.
The state prosecutor's indictments for Henson, 62, and Schurick, 54, describe an Ehrlich campaign document titled "The Schurick Doctrine" with a stated goal "to promote confusion, emotionalism, and frustration among African-American Democrats."
The document said, according to court papers: "The first and foremost desired outcome [of the Schurick Doctrine strategy] is voter suppression." The indictment did not identify the document's author.
Peter Zeidman, an attorney for Schurick, said the charges are "based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the facts."
"When the truth comes out," he said, it will be clear that Schurick "did not violate any laws."
Edward Smith Jr., Henson's attorney, said his client is not guilty and that he would "let the process work itself out."
State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt addressed reporters briefly in front of the Baltimore courthouse and read the charges. In a statement that he distributed, he said: "We will aggressively investigate and prosecute any illegal tactics that attempt to threaten [the election process'] integrity."
Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley appointed Davitt to the post in late November.
If convicted, Henson and Schurick could be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison for each election law and voter influence count, and one year for the authority line violations.
The indictments followed an eight-month investigation by the state prosecutor's office into more than 112,000 robocalls that went out late on Election Day. A caller instructed voters in Baltimore and Prince George's County to stay home and "relax" because O'Malley had already won. In fact, the polls were still open.
Ehrlich was not accused of wrongdoing, though the taint from his aides' indictments could provide an embarrassing epilogue to his 14-percentage-point defeat.
In a statement, Ehrlich said: "I believe in the rule of law. I believe in my friend and colleague, Paul Schurick. I hope a fair resolution is reached as quickly as possible for both Paul and Mr. Henson."
Ehrlich testified before the Baltimore grand jury this month. Greg Massoni, another longtime Ehrlich aide, also appeared before the grand jurors. Massoni and Ehrlich now work for the Washington office of the law firm King & Spalding.
Schurick is working as an independent consultant, Zeidman said.
It's unclear what effect, if any, the case will have on the state Republican Party or Ehrlich's reputation. Maryland Republican Party Chairman Alex Mooney said that it "is not at all on my radar" and that he is focused on raising money in a difficult time.
The state's Democrats were more outspoken. Party Chairwoman Yvette Lewis released a statement describing the robocalls as "reprehensible." She said she was "outraged" by "any action intended to disenfranchise voters."
Schurick has been a fixture in Maryland politics for decades. He worked in communications for Democratic former Gov. William Donald Schaefer and was sometimes called the "Democrat" in Ehrlich's close-knit group of aides.
He helped Ehrlich win election in 2002 and was rewarded with a job as communications director in the governor's office. A member of the inner circle of aides, he followed Ehrlich to work at the law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in 2007. Still loyal, he left the firm last year to head up Ehrlich's rematch with O'Malley.
Campaign finance records show Ehrlich paid him about $106,000 in 2010.
Political observers were stunned when Ehrlich's campaign hired Henson last year. The consultant has a track record of electing Democrats using controversial methods, and even tangled with Ehrlich in 2002 when he called the gubernatorial hopeful a "Nazi."
Speaking on behalf of the Ehrlich campaign in 2002, Schurick said of Henson: "His brand of politics is one we have no interest in."
But Ehrlich hired Henson last summer, paying his firms $111,000 for "community outreach."
Henson acknowledged ordering the robocalls. He told The Baltimore Sun in November that the calls were "counterintuitive" and were intended to encourage supporters to vote.
Campaign finance reports show Henson's two firms, Universal Elections and Politics Today, collected more than $675,000 from political candidates in 2010, a sum that included his fees and money for automated phone calls, ads and other materials.
Several former clients, including Baltimore City Council President Bernard "Jack" Young, said after the robocalls were traced to Henson by The Baltimore Sun that they would no longer work with him.
The indictment accuses Henson of tapping resources from his Democratic clients when designing the voter suppression strategy for Ehrlich.
Two call lists were merged, according to court papers. One was originally created for Deborah Claridy's failed bid for Baltimore sheriff in 2010, prosecutors said. That campaign paid one of Henson's companies $35,000.
The Prince George's County phone numbers came from Marilynn Bland's campaign for clerk of the court. A slate associated with that effort paid a Henson firm $38,000 last year.
According to the indictment, Henson met with top Ehrlich aides last summer and outlined a voter suppression strategy in 472 precincts. At that time, the Ehrlich campaign decided it would be too expensive.
But the idea apparently re-emerged. The indictment describes a hectic "war room" at Ehrlich headquarters on Election Day. Starting in the early afternoon, there was a flurry of phone calls between Henson and Schurick.
In the late afternoon, Henson associate Rhonda Russell recorded a 25-second "test" message and sent it to Schurick and Massoni, the indictment states.
Schurick accessed his voice mail just after the test message was sent to him, according to the indictment. Minutes later, the calls started going out to 112,544 phone numbers.
Schurick is also charged with obstructing justice for failing to provide prosecutors with a complete copy of "The Schurick Doctrine" memo described in the indictment.
William H. "Billy" Murphy Jr., another member of Schurick's defense team and a friend of Ehrlich and Schurick, predicted his client would be "completely exonerated."
"I have respected and worked closely with my good friend Paul Schurick since his involvement in Governor Schaefer's administration, and I know he would never do any of these things," Murphy said.
An arraignment for the criminal charges in Baltimore Circuit Court is scheduled for next month, prosecutors said. Henson and Schurick will be ordered to court via a criminal summons, and therefore were not arrested Thursday.
Henson and his associate Russell also face a multimillion-dollar federal civil complaint filed in November by Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler. An attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Division also is listed as a plaintiff in the case.
Gansler alleges that the robocalls were intended to suppress and intimidate voters in predominantly African-American, Democratic neighborhoods. If found to be violations, each of the 112,000 calls would carry a $500 fine.
On May 25, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake denied Henson's motion to dismiss the civil case. The court is still considering a defense motion to stay the proceedings pending the outcome of any criminal cases.
Henson defense attorney Smith argued that going to court in the civil case would violate the witnesses' protection from self-incrimination.
Gansler's office, in a response to that motion filed June 2, argued that "defendants are asserting this privilege even though no criminal actions have commenced." David Paulson, a Gansler spokesman, said the two cases are "separate and unrelated."
Text of the robocall recording
"Hello. I'm calling to let everyone know that Governor O'Malley and President Obama have been successful. Our goals have been met. The polls were correct, and we took it back. We're OK. Relax. Everything's fine. The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight. Congratulations, and thank you."
[From court papers filed in civil and criminal complaints]