Veteran political consultant Julius Henson pledged Wednesday to continue running for a Maryland Senate seat even though the state says that may violate the terms of his probation.
"Whether I'm free or in prison, the contest will go on and I plan to win this race," Henson, 64, said during an afternoon news conference in the living room of his East Baltimore home. He vowed to "retire" longtime Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, whom he plans to challenge in the June 24 Democratic primary.
Henson is serving three years probation stemming from his conviction in a high-profile election-fraud case. As part of the sentence, Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Emanuel Brown ordered that Henson "shall not work in any political campaign paid/volunteer during probation."
Henson said he learned from reporters Wednesday that he's been summoned to court next week for a violation-of-probation hearing.
At issue is whether Henson is prohibited from running for office or only from working on another candidate's campaign. Gerard Shields, a spokesman for the state prison system, said Henson's probation agent alerted the court of the potential violation after learning that Henson was planning to run for state Senate. A hearing before Judge Brown is scheduled for Feb. 27.
Sheilds said the court issued the summons for Henson to appear in court. He said it was not the corrections system's responsibility to alert Henson to the hearing.
Judge Brown did not respond to a request for comment.
Henson's former attorney, Edward Smith Jr., said he is confident Henson has not violated the terms of his probation.
"The order is that he could not work on a campaign as a political consultant," Smith said. "There was nothing to say that he could not run as a candidate. That would be far too general a prohibition to make. It makes absolutely no sense."
Smith suggested there was political pressure to try to force Henson from the race. "There are powerful interests involved here. It stinks to high heavens," he said.
Henson was convicted in May 2012 of conspiracy to violate election laws by not including an authority line on a "robocall," made as part of Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s 2010 campaign to return to office. Ehrlich lost the election to the incumbent, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.
The call targeted Democratic voters in Baltimore and Prince George's County and said they could "relax," suggesting that O'Malley had won. In fact, no one knew the results because the polls were still open.
Henson served a month in jail before being released on probation. Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler brought a civil case against him, and a federal judge ordered Henson to pay $1 million in fines.
Ehrlich's campaign manager, Paul Schurick, was convicted of four charges related to election fraud. He was sentenced to 30 days of home detention and 500 hours of community service but no jail time.
Henson has maintained that the judge's order applies to "work" as a political consultant, not his own campaign.
"It comes down to the definition of 'What is work?'" Henson said. "I have no idea why they would drag me into court. It is an attempt to criminalize this campaign. .... It's overreach. It's an attempt and an effort to help my opponent, because he cannot win in the street."
Henson, who is president of East Baltimore's Berea community association, said he plans to file the paperwork to run for Senate at 10 a.m. Thursday. "This is America. They cannot stop me from filing," he said.
University of Baltimore law professor Byron L. Warnken said he can understand both sides of the case, but believes Henson has the stronger argument.
"I would interpret that prohibition to say that implicitly, it is referring to someone else's campaign," said Warnken, who is not involved in the case. "If the judge had wanted to prohibit him from being a candidate, he easily could have said that. I think Henson's side is the stronger side."
Henson reiterated Wednesday that he is unrepentant about his actions that election night.
"It was selective prosecution," he said. "I will not acquiesce. I'm not going to say, 'I'm sorry, it's wrong,' when I know it wasn't."
In a campaign press release, Henson said his "mission is to give voice and strength to the people who are suffering, solve the issues surrounding East Baltimore and transform it into a economically booming, attractive and modernized place to live."
Reached Wednesday afternoon, McFadden declined to comment.