A bipartisan group of high-profile politicians took the witness stand Thursday to vouch for the honesty and integrity of Paul Schurick, a key Ehrlich campaign adviser, who faces charges of election fraud stemming from a 2010 Election Day "robocall" that prosecutors allege was designed to suppress black votes.
The day began with testimony in Baltimore Circuit Court from MSNBC analyst and former Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele — who called Schurick "smart and careful" — and ended with Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who praised his former campaign chairman. A former Democratic governor and state lawmaker joined them as character witnesses.
"He is a good person. He is an honest person. He is a church person. He is a family person," Ehrlich said of Schurick, 55, of Crownsville.
Outside the courtroom, Ehrlich said he had had nothing to do with the call and that was "very clear from the testimony."
Ehrlich declined to answer questions about Julius Henson, the consultant who wrote the text of the call and proposed a plan to suppress black votes. Henson, who is to go on trial Feb. 6, was paid $112,000 by the Ehrlich campaign.
Schurick and Henson also have worked on Democratic campaigns. Asked to comment about allegations that Schurick's trial is an abuse of power by the state's Democratic establishment, Ehrlich said he would let the citizens of Maryland decide for themselves.
"I'm not pleased to be here," Ehrlich said. "But it's the right thing to be here."
More than a dozen witnesses, including former Democratic Gov. Marvin Mandel, vouched for Schurick's character — with a half-dozen more planned for tomorrow — part of a strategy to convince the jury that the Ehrlich campaign director had nothing nefarious in mind when he approved the robocall.
"I have a high degree of respect for Mr. Schurick. I can't believe he would do something like that," testified former state Sen. John A. Pica Jr., a Democrat who represented Baltimore.
Mandel, who said he's known Schurick for 30 years, called him "totally honest, totally reliable and a man of his word."
Also Thursday, Circuit Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill dismissed one of the five charges against Schurick. Fletcher-Hill ruled that prosecutors had failed to provide evidence that Schurick had obstructed justice by withholding documents they subpoenaed.
The judge ruled that counts of conspiracy and election fraud will stand, rejecting an argument from Schurick's attorneys that the robocall was protected as political free speech.
"The message, in the court's judgment, is plainly fraudulent," Fletcher-Hill said, adding that one only needed "common sense" to see that the call was "an attempt to try to get people to stay at home."
"The fact that some of the citizens weren't deceived by this doesn't make it any less fraudulent," the judge said.
The automated call said Gov. Martin O'Malley and President Barack Obama, who was not on the ballot, had been "successful" in that day's election. The calls were made while the polls were still open and the votes uncounted. The robocall told voters that "our goals have been met. The polls are correct, and we took it back. We're OK. Relax. Everything's fine. The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight."
Special Agent John Poliks, an investigator for the state prosecutor's office, testified Wednesday that Schurick told him that he'd authorized the robocall but denied that he had heard its contents on Election Day. Poliks provided phone records to show that a copy of the robocall had been sent to the voice mail on Schurick's phone that day and that the campaign adviser had listened to his voice mail at 6:13 p.m. The robocalls began at 5:55 p.m. and ended at 8 p.m., phone records show.
The robocall was 23 seconds long, and Schurick listened to his voice mail for 54 seconds, Poliks said.
Members of Ehrlich's senior staff have testified that they rejected Henson's voter-suppression efforts, including a $600,000 plan proposed by Henson, based on what he called the "Schurick Doctrine," designed to "promote confusion, emotionalism and frustration" among black voters in largely African-American districts.
Prosecutors have highlighted a 2:53 p.m. email on Election Day from campaign political director Bernie Marczyk to Schurick that they say was the impetus for the robocall.
"What does Julius need to make city turnout stay low?" the email asked.
An FBI raid of a Henson employee's home produced notes that said, "suppress turnout in black communities" next to the number 100,000.
Schurick's attorneys have argued that Henson, not their client, was responsible for the call, which they say was designed to encourage voters to go the polls, not to discourage them. They contend that the call was aimed at ensuring that cross-over Democrats would vote for Ehrlich.
Matthew Bennett, who represents Schurick, said political speech is often deceiving and that the prosecution of Schurick creates a "slippery slope" that could curtail free speech. He said he saw a campaign poster during that election that depicted O'Malley as being on a ticket with Obama — which he said was designed to trick voters into casting ballots for the incumbent governor. He said the poster was misleading because Obama wasn't running.
Bennett noted an appellate case out of California in which it was ruled that vote-swapping websites — where voters from different states agree to cast ballots for each other's preferred national candidates — are legal, despite objections of voter fraud.
"Free speech trumps all that," Bennett said. "Political core speech is the most protected form of speech under the First Amendment."
Attorneys were still deciding whether Schurick would take the stand in his own defense Friday. The case is expected to wrap up Friday or Monday.