Ehrlich paid $168,000 for Schurick lawyers

Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. used $168,000 of leftover campaign funds to pay for defense attorneys for Paul Schurick, his longtime aide who was convicted on charges of electoral fraud rising out of Ehrlich's failed run against Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2010.

The payments were outlined in a campaign finance report filed last week by the Bob Ehrlich for Maryland Committee, which remains in operation. Ehrlich has said he intends to stay out of Maryland electoral politics.

The money paid to four law firms that took part in Schurick's defense made up the bulk of. the committee's spending last year. It closed out the reporting year that ended Jan. 12 with $32,642 left in the account.

A. Dwight Pettit, the lawyer who represented Schurick at his trial, confirmed that he received $75,000 from the Ehrlich committee in July and November for the former campaign manager's defense. Pettit identified three other firms that received money from Ehrlich — Irwin Green & Dexter of Towson, the Levin Law Firm of Baltimore and DLA Piper of Baltimore — as also having been involved in Schurick's defense.

Schurick was convicted by a Baltimore jury Dec. 6 on charges that he authorized a 2010 Election Day automated-call campaign designed to suppress the African-American vote by falsely suggesting that O'Malley, a Democrat, had already won and that voters could stay home. The former campaign manager, who had served as communications director when Ehrlich was governor, was found guilty of election fraud and failure to properly identify the calls as being paid for by Ehrlich's campaign.

Ehrlich, a Republican, stood behind Schurick during the investigation by the state prosecutor's office and was called as a character witness at the trial.

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

Ehrlich has denied knowing about the robocalls or any plans to discourage African-Americans from voting. Neither he nor Schurick could be reached for comment Monday. Ehrlich, who works at the Washington office of the King & Spalding law firm, recently agreed to write a weekly column for the op-ed page of The Baltimore Sun.

Schurick is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 16. Also charged in the case is Julius Henson, a longtime campaign operative who is accused of being the author of the scheme to suppress the black vote. Henson's trial is set for Feb. 6.

The use of the money to pay an aide's legal defense is not clearly addressed in Maryland law. A 2008 opinion from the Maryland attorney general's office advised that state Sen. Ulysses S. Currie could have used campaign funds to pay legal expenses if the case related to electoral activities. However, the opinion did not discuss the use of campaign funds for the legal expenses of someone other than the candidate.

The use of Maryland campaign funds is governed by state law, but the expenditure would have complied with federal election rules. An advisory letter by the Federal Election Commission in 2009 ruled that the legal expenses of a campaign aide on an election-related matter is permitted.

A spokeswoman for the watchdog group Common Cause Maryland said state law should be clarified. "People are giving that money in order to elect people. I don't think they are giving that money thinking they are going to be supporting or paying for their legal actions in court when they stepped over a line and violated the law," said executive director Susan Wichmann. "I think the General Assembly should revisit whether that is an appropriate use."