Election Day robocall made by Ehrlich operative

The automated Election Day phone calls telling Marylanders to "relax" because Gov. Martin O'Malley had already won were generated by a Democratic operative who said he was working for Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The Baltimore Sun tracked the calls, which came while polls were still open, to a company called Robodial.org, a Pennsylvania-based outfit that works exclusively for progressive and Democratic candidates.

The company's owner said a representative of Universal Elections of Baltimore paid for and recorded the call. The owner of Universal, longtime campaign operative Julius Henson, acknowledged Friday that he was behind the effort.

The recording told voters that O'Malley had been successful and that "the only thing left is to watch TV tonight." It was widely interpreted as an effort to suppress voter turnout in heavily Democratic Baltimore, and it prompted an immediate outcry from Democrats and Republicans alike.

Henson acknowledged that the call was made on behalf of Ehrlich, the former governor who paid Henson's companies tens of thousands of dollars this year. But the intent, Henson said, was to motivate supporters of the Republican nominee.

"We believe the call was made for voters in Baltimore City who were not going to go to the polls, to go to the polls and vote," Henson said. "It never said, 'Don't vote.'"

Henson was vague about how the decision was made to employ the tactic. "I'm on the Bob Ehrlich team, and we thought a call like that would help, and we made the [decision]," Henson said, adding that Ehrlich himself "probably" didn't know about it.

An Ehrlich spokesman, who on election night labeled the calls "absolutely irresponsible," declined to comment Friday.

The recorded voice did not identify who was paying for the calls, as state law requires. Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has pledged to investigate possible fraud or voter suppression. U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin also asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to launch a probe.

A state law passed in 2005 also states that "a person may not willfully and knowingly influence or attempt to influence a voter's decision whether to go to the polls to cast a vote through the use of force, fraud, threat, menace, intimidation, bribery, reward, or offer of reward."

Henson has a history of rough-and-tumble campaign tactics.

In the 1998 gubernatorial race, he masterminded an effort to paint Republican nominee Ellen R. Sauerbrey as a racist through fliers and other materials depicting her as an enemy of civil rights.

He disrupted a key endorsement of O'Malley's first mayoral campaign in 1999 while working for a competitor, and forced defense attorney Warren Brown out of a Baltimore state's attorney's race by digging into his personal life.

In 2002, Henson was hired by then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and vowed to portray Ehrlich, her opponent in the governor's race, as a "Nazi" in an effort to win black voters. But the former governor said he did not hold a grudge, and for this year's campaign directed more than $97,000 to two companies affiliated with Henson — Universal and Politics Today.

The bulk of that money — $82,150 — went to Politics Today, which is currently at risk of losing its state business license because of failure to submit forms due in April 2009, said Bob Young, assistant director of the state Department of Taxation and Assessments. The company has until Dec. 3 to turn in the paperwork or it could lose its business license, Young said.

Mark Hampton, the owner of Robodial.org, said the Election Day call was paid for by Rhonda Russell, a Universal employee who previously was political director for the liberal group Progressive Maryland. Russell could not be reached for comment.

The Robodial.org website says the company will work only for progressive and Democratic causes and candidates in the general election, and upon learning of details about the call from a reporter, Hampton revoked Russell's account.

"The consultant who set up that call has been using our system for a couple of years, and in the past we understood that her calls were in support of Democratic candidates," Hampton told The Sun in an e-mail. "Apparently something has changed."

The Election Night call starting going out about 6:30 p.m., according to some who received it, and Hampton said it reached about 50,000 homes. It featured a woman's voice — which Henson said was Russell — saying that O'Malley and President Barack Obama had been successful and that "our goals have been met."

As word of the call spread, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who was elected to his seat in 1996 with Henson's help, quickly recorded a rebuttal call stressing that the election was not over.

Cummings declined to comment on Henson specifically until an investigation was completed.

"I believe that anybody who either stands in the way of people voting or discourages people from voting should be brought to justice, period," he said Friday. "I don't care who they are."

While Democrats immediately pinned the call on Ehrlich, his campaign denied knowledge and denounced it. The chairwoman of the state Republican Party said the call was a "complete disgrace" and called for an investigation.

Ryan Mahoney, political director of the Maryland Republican Party, said the party stood by its statement.

Democrats spoke out more forcefully Friday.

"As I suspected, this ugly tactic appears to have been sponsored by the Bob Ehrlich campaign to suppress voter turnout in Baltimore City," Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement. "This kind of reprehensible behavior may be illegal and has absolutely no place in Maryland politics."

Maryland Democratic Party Chairwoman Susan Turnbull called on the Ehrlich campaign to "fully disclose their role in this unfortunate episode and cooperate fully with any ongoing investigations in the matter."

Turnbull noted that Ehrlich had been accused in 2002 of distributing brochures depicting him and notable black leaders that read, "Democrats for Ehrlich," when the leaders had not backed Ehrlich's candidacy. In 2006, he was accused of busing homeless people from Philadelphia to distribute fliers that again falsely suggested he was supported by black Democratic leaders.

Despite his controversial past, Henson has been resilient, compiling a long list of political successes in Baltimore and Prince George's County. He has long-standing ties to city Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, whose private accounting firm is listed as the address for one of his companies. Campaign finance records show that his firms collected more than $600,000 this year for consulting, mostly from candidates who were newcomers. Two of those candidates won.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, who will be up for re-election next year, has paid Henson's company at least $22,500.

Young, who has never before run a citywide campaign, said Friday that he was cutting ties with Henson immediately.

"What he did for me the last couple months was to set up certain things," Young said. "In light of this, I'm not going to deal with it. I'm just going to sever ties."

In perhaps a veiled reference to Young, who is said to be considering a run for mayor in 2011, Rawlings-Blake said "no campaign committee in Maryland should support his brand of gutter politics and candidates should think twice about hiring the likes of Julius Henson."

Outside his East Baltimore home on Friday, Henson defended the call, saying "it was a psychology to get our voters to get to the polls and vote."

"How could the side that won the election by a landslide and a half say it's voter fraud or voter suppression?" he asked. "I think the United States government and the state have more important things to do, like find some jobs." Henson invited reporters to his house, saying he was expecting investigators to deliver a subpoena and wanted the event to be recorded.

Henson said Democratic groups had tried to make black voters believe Obama was on this year's ballot to bolster turnout. "Was that dirty politics?" he asked rhetorically.

He did acknowledge, however, that he should have identified the source of the call.

Earlier this election season, another candidate paying consulting fees to Henson's group was accused of misleading voters. According to the Maryland Politics Watch blog, a hopeful for the Maryland legislature from Montgomery County, Vanessa Atterbeary, distributed fliers showing her with a slew of top elected officials, including Rep. Chris Van Hollen and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, with a message that read, "We all agree Vanessa Atterbeary is the one." But officials who appeared in the picture had already endorsed a slate that did not include Atterbeary.

Atterbeary, who paid Henson's company at least $79,000 according to campaign finance records, finished in fourth place in the primary for three spots.

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Scharper contributed to this article.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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