Prosecutors: GOP 'robocall' plan to suppress black votes hatched on hectic Election Day

A plan by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign manager to suppress black votes in Baltimore and Prince George's County was hatched shortly before 3 p.m. on a desperate, hectic Election Day last year, prosecutors alleged Tuesday in Baltimore Circuit Court.

Needing low voter turnout in those jurisdictions, aides to Ehrlich, a Republican, conferred with political consultant Julius Henson on a strategy to keep those votes down, according to emails presented to the jury in the election fraud case against Ehrlich's campaign manager, Paul Schurick, 55, of Crownsville.

"What does Julius need to make city turnout stay low?" campaign political director Bernie Marczyk wrote in a 2:53 p.m. email to Schurick, proposing additional bonuses for Henson if he could keep residents from the polls.

Months earlier, the Ehrlich campaign had rejected a $600,000 plan by Henson to suppress votes throughout the state, prosecutors told the jury. Henson's plan was based on what he called the "Schurick Doctrine," which he said was to "promote confusion, emotionalism and frustration" among black voters in largely African-American districts, prosecutors said.

Though rejecting that plan, the campaign continued to pay Henson $16,000 a month — for a total of $112,000 — and promised a bonus of $30,000 should Ehrlich win.

On Election Day, with the race on the line, and a sense of panic setting in amid an ultimately unsuccessful effort against Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, the campaign finally gave in to Henson's plans, prosecutors said.

Schurick called Henson shortly before 5 p.m. to authorize an anonymous, automated "robocall" to 112,000 Democratic households in the two jurisdictions, telling voters to "relax" and that O'Malley and President Barack Obama, who was not on the ballot, had been "successful" in that day's election, according to prosecutors.

They said Henson called an employee of his consulting business, Rhonda Russell, at her home and told her to record the call in her own voice. Henson directed that the call not carry Ehrlich's authorization line, according to prosecutors.

The robocalls began at 5:55 p.m., prosecutors said. By 8 p.m., as the polls closed, the calls were finished.

"It's not just a political dirty trick," Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet Davitt, who investigates corruption cases, said during opening statements. "In the state of Maryland, it's against the law."

The Baltimore Sun first reported that the robo-calls were made by Henson's firm on behalf of the Ehrlich campaign.

Schurick faces two counts of conspiracy and one count each of election fraud and obstruction of justice. Baltimore Circuit Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill dismissed a third conspiracy count Tuesday on the grounds that it was redundant. Henson, who faces similar charges, is being tried separately. His court date is Feb. 6.

During his opening statement Tuesday, Schurick's attorney, A. Dwight Pettit, argued that the Democratic establishment in the state was trying to stamp out diversity of opinion by bringing charges against his client. He said prosecutors subpoenaed voluminous files and searched computers, including former first lady Kendel Ehrlich's files, in a "vicious" act of intimidation and "suppression of political independence."

According to Pettit, Henson was first hired to increase the black vote in Baltimore for Ehrlich, not to try to suppress Democrats. It was Henson, not Schurick, who cooked up a plot to hold down the vote, Pettit said.

"The Schurick Doctrine wasn't written by Mr. Schurick. It was written by Mr. Henson," Pettit said. "This is the Ehrlich campaign. We don't suppress votes."

But Pettit also argued that even if the jury believes Schurick's intent was to suppress black votes, they must find he tried to coerce or deceive people from voting.

"To suppress a vote, that's not illegal," Pettit argued. "What's illegal is the fraud … and coercion to suppress a vote."

Pettit called the trial a "very, very historic and important case." He plans to call as many as a dozen witnesses to testify about the facts in his case, and as many as 30 character witnesses. Ehrlich, he said, most likely will be among them.

He also told the jury — which is made up of five black women, two black men, three white women and two white men — that Henson is "a black man" and does work for "half" the Democrats in Baltimore, including U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who is a potential witness in the case.

Other witnesses Tuesday included two citizens who received the robocalls. They testified that they viewed the calls as attempt to trick them out of voting.

Later on election night, prosecutors told jurors, as reporters learned of the robocalls, Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell was peppered with questions. Fawell denied to them that the campaign had anything to do with the calls until he asked Schurick, who told him to stop denying, according to prosecutors.

Taken aback, Fawell asked Schurick what he should tell the media.

His response, prosecutors said, was telling: "I don't know. Help me out."