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Schurick guilty of election fraud in robocall case

A Baltimore jury Tuesday found Paul Schurick, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign manager, guilty of fraud and related charges for his role in an Election Day 2010 robocall — a decision hailed by government watchdog groups who say that for too long dirty tricks have tainted Maryland politics.

The robocall, sent to thousands of voters as Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley swept to a re-election victory, was designed to suppress black votes by telling recipients to "relax" and assuring them that O'Malley had been successful even though the polls had not yet closed, the jury found. The call was scripted to give the impression it was coming from Democrats, not Republicans, jurors said.

The jury found Schurick guilty on all four counts, including election fraud and failing to include an Ehrlich campaign authorization line on the calls. After the verdict was read, Schurick clutched his wife, who burst into tears. Schurick, who maintained a solemn face after the hearing as he comforted distraught family members and friends, declined to comment.

His attorney, A. Dwight Pettit, said he was "disappointed" and vowed to appeal on First Amendment grounds that the call was protected, political speech. He said the case represented an unconstitutional attempt by the state to "regulate political speech."

But voter advocates said the verdict — delivered on the same day that former Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson was sentenced to more than seven years on federal corruption charges — sends a clear message.

"Political operatives in Maryland take note," said Susan Wichmann, executive director of Common Cause Maryland. "Suppressing the vote is not just a 'dirty trick,' it is a crime and it will not be tolerated."

Schurick, whose sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 16, faces a total of 12 years in prison. Defense attorneys said they believed the judge will have to merge some of the counts, resulting in no more than a six-year sentence. Prosecutors told the judge Tuesday they would not seek to have Schurick incarcerated before sentencing.

University of Baltimore law professor Byron L. Warnken said he didn't foresee jail time for Schurick and that he's already suffered a form of punishment through the public embarrassment of the trial. Warnken noted the four charges of which Schurick was convicted were misdemeanors, and that he isn't a threat to public safety.

"His reputation is soured. His ability to work in the industry is soured," Warnken said. "My guess would be he will be given a prison term, but it will be suspended and he will be placed on probation."

Outside Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse in Baltimore, State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt said he believed the conviction was the first under a 2006 addition to the Voter Rights Protection Act that made it illegal to use deceptive messaging to influence a voter's decision to go to the polls. Davitt said he hopes the law and the jury's decision "sends a message" to political campaigns to clean up their acts.

"This type of behavior has always existed, but it seems like it's … becoming more of a problem," Davitt said. "We certainly respect the First Amendment, but the courts have made clear … that the First Amendment does not protect fraudulent speech. Clearly that was the case here. It wasn't just political speech. It was fraudulent speech."

Herbert C. Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College, said that the robocall in Schurick's case was an extreme example of "dirty tricks" in campaigns. "Deceptive Election Day literature, stuff like that, that's like driving 65 in a 55 miles per hour zone," Smith said. "This was going 120. This was way over the edge."

Schurick and his defense team had portrayed the robocall as a mistake — a hastily hatched plan to encourage "crossover" black voters to head to the polls to vote for Ehrlich — and put prominent politicians from both political parties on the stand to vouch for his character. Pettit called the robocall a "faux pas" that wasn't criminal.

Jurors said Tuesday they found the character witnesses persuasive, and believe Schurick to be a good man. "We love the guy," said Mike Johnson, juror No. 4. "He is a nice guy, but even nice guys do bad things."

Ehrlich, who praised Schurick as a character witness last week, said on Tuesday that he believed the jury came to the wrong conclusion. The former governor has denied knowing about the call and last week declined to answer questions about voter suppression plans during the campaign.

"While I vehemently disagree with the decision from a Baltimore City jury, I do respect our legal system," Ehrlich said in a statement Tuesday. "There are options available to Paul and his legal team. I continue to support my friend Paul Schurick."

Schurick, 55, of Crownsville, was tried in Baltimore Circuit Court on charges of conspiracy and election fraud. His trial comes before that of political consultant Julius Henson, who crafted the robocall to Democrats in Baltimore City and Prince George's County that prosecutors say implied that voters should stay home from the polls. Henson is scheduled to be tried Feb. 6.

Jurors said they didn't understand the Ehrlich campaign's decision to retain Henson, even after he pitched them on a $600,000 plan to suppress black votes in July 2010. "Why wasn't he fired right on the spot?" asked Johnson, the juror.

Henson's plan was evidence in Schurick's trial. It stated that "the first and most desired outcome is voter suppression." The goal was to have "African-American voters stay home." In the same document, Henson proposed what he called the "Schurick Doctrine," which was designed to "promote confusion, emotionalism and frustration among African American Democrats."

The Ehrlich campaign rejected the plan but continued to pay Henson $16,000 a month — for a total of $112,000 — and promised him a $30,000 bonus should Ehrlich win.

Jurors also said they didn't accept arguments that the call was protected free speech.

"Your free speech does have certain limits," said Niomi Rosenberg, juror No. 3. "Confusion to suppress votes is a very big problem."

Lester Spence, an assistant professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University, said he believed Ehrlich's legacy could be hurt by the jury's verdict.

"If this were a state that bled red, he'd be all good," Spence said. "Maryland is a state that is so Democratic, there's no way he can spin it. His legacy should be tainted, but those people who believe he was a great governor are still going to believe that."

After the verdict, Davitt told reporters that the case was not politically motivated. He noted the investigation into the robocall began under the his predecessor, Robert A. Rohrbaugh, who was appointed by Ehrlich.

"If it's the Democratic Party, the Republican Party or the Communist Party, this type of behavior will not be tolerated in the future," Davitt said.

Democrats immediately celebrated the jury's verdict.

"The right to vote is precious and a critical part of our democracy. Paul Schurick and the Ehrlich campaign sought to take away that right for some of our fellow citizens," Maryland Democratic Party Chair Yvette Lewis said in a statement.

On Friday, Schurick took the witness stand in his own defense and admitted he approved the text for the automated phone call, but said it was not intended to suppress black votes.

The automated call said O'Malley and President Barack Obama, who was not on the ballot, had been "successful" in that day's election. 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."

During a hearing last week while the jury was not in the courtroom, the presiding judge in the case, Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill, told lawyers he believed the call was "plainly fraudulent" and one needed only "common sense" to see that the call was "an attempt to try to get people to stay at home."

The jury —five black women, two black men, three white women and two white men — spent about five total hours deliberating before returning the verdict around noon.

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