Maryland's state prosecutor charged two Republican strategists Thursday with distributing an illegal robocall that many considered an attempt to smear an openly gay local candidate in 2014.
Prosecutor Emmet Davitt announced charges against Dennis Fusaro, a national Republican figure best known for leaking internal emails and phone calls from Ron Paul's 2012 presidential campaign, and Stephen Waters, a Republican political consultant based in Virginia.
The alleged election law violations stem from a robocall that went to about 5,000 Anne Arundel County residents the weekend before the 2014 election, congratulating Democratic County Council candidate Patrick Armstrong "for his bravery in coming out of the closet" and linking him to a controversial measure that banned discrimination against transgender people in public areas, including restrooms.
The recording gave the home phone number of Armstrong's mother and invited residents to call about Armstrong's support of "the bathroom bill." Many did.
Prosecutors said the call lacked the appropriate identification and came from what they described as "an untraceable" prepaid cellphone purchased with cash by Waters and Fusaro at a Wal-Mart in Fredericksburg, Va.
"The call in question failed to identify Fusaro and Waters as the persons responsible for the call, and failed to state whether it was authorized by any candidate," prosecutors said in a statement. "Instead, the call falsely stated that it was 'Paid for and authorized by Marylanders for Transgenders.'"
Prosecutors said they believe the pair bought so-called burners, or prepaid cellphones, "in an effort to conceal their identities as the persons authorizing and paying for the call."
Fusaro was the campaign manager of Armstrong's opponent, Republican Councilman Michael Anthony Peroutka, a former member of the neo-Confederate group League of the South.
Christopher Kachouroff, attorney for Fusaro and Waters, would not say whether his clients were responsible for the call but dubbed its message "political satire."
"If I put the same message in a newspaper, anonymously, would it be prosecuted?" Kachouroff said. "This is not campaign material. … Even if it was campaign material, it's protected by the First Amendment."
At the time, Peroutka, who won the election, denied any knowledge of the call.
"It absolutely has nothing to do with me," Peroutka said in November 2014. "Certainly, it was not my campaign, or anybody that I knew."
He said he thought the call was an attempt to "cost me votes and also cause some level of disturbance to my family."
On Thursday, a legislative aide released a statement that the councilman had "no prior knowledge of the robocall" and has "fully cooperated with authorities in the investigation of this matter."
Fusaro and Waters have been charged with two counts — violating and conspiring to violate the authority line requirements of Maryland election laws. Each charge carries a maximum of one year in jail and a $5,000 fine. A preliminary hearing is scheduled May 13.
Armstrong said he believed the call cost him votes and "confused many voters." He said the call "spread fear" about his personal life and was "an ugly smear against transgender people."
"Someone will be held responsible for this, and that makes me happy," said Susan O'Brien, Armstrong's campaign manager, on Thursday.
In a statement accompanying the charges, Davitt said that the message, allegedly authored by Fasano and Waters, "not only failed to provide the information required by Maryland law, it attempted to deliberately deceive by providing false and misleading information instead. Maryland voters are entitled to know what person or group is responsible for such material, particularly when it is published and distributed just a few days before Election Day."
Advocates in Maryland's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community saw the call as an attempt to solicit anti-gay opposition to Armstrong's candidacy. The executive director of the state's largest LGBT advocacy group said at the time that the message's origin was so unclear that a supporter of their group, Equality Maryland, believed they had paid for it.
Prosecutors released a transcript of the call:
"Hello, what a great opportunity for the LGBT community. We have a true believer for our cause in Patrick Armstrong who's running for County Council in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Call Patrick today and thank him for his bravery in coming out of the closet. Coming out of the closet and supporting the fairness to all Marylander's Act, the Maryland State Senate Bill 212, and supporting the rights for all transgenders.
"Transgenders can now openly and freely go into any bathroom of their choice based on their confused gender identity. Tell Patrick to continue to stand loud and proud in support for transgenders' equal rights. While our opponent argued that children could be at risk by sexual predators with this new law, we celebrate the rights of transgenders and what this does for equality for transgenders in Maryland. Call him today ... and thank him for supporting the bathroom bill."