UPDATED 1:55 p.m
The trial scheduled to begin Tuesday of a Maryland political consultant accused of orchestrating robo-calls that urged voters in predominantly black districts to “relax” and not bother going to the polls last year was postponed until 2012.
The case was expected to be the first of two to settle whether members of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich’s (R) campaign team sought to suppress black voter turnout to help Ehrlich at the polls.
Consultant Julius Henson is now scheduled to stand trial on Feb. 6. The case of Ehrlich’s de-facto campaign manager, Paul E. Schurick, could now be heard first. Schurick’s trial is scheduled for Nov. 28.
Charles J. Peters, the judge assigned to hear Henson’s case on Tuesday, recused himself because he had been appointed to the Baltimore City Circuit Court bench by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) in 2010, months before O’Malley bested Ehrlich in the election in question, said Henson’s attorney, Edward Smith Jr.
Former Gov. Ehrlich and first lady Kendel Ehrlich had been on the state’s witness list and were expected to testify in coming days.
Henson and Schurick were indicted in June on multiple counts of election law violations stemming from the calls, which were placed to more than 110,000 Democrats in Baltimore and Prince George’s County, according to prosecutors.
With the polls still open on Election Day 2010, a woman’s recorded voice told blacks who picked up the phone to “relax” and not to worry about going to vote because Gov. O’Malley (D), the Democratic incumbent, had already been “successful” in his rematch against Ehrlich.
On Tuesday, Henson, the lesser-known defendant, and his often controversial, behind-the-scenes work for Maryland political campaigns had been poised to take center stage.
An African American elections consultant, Henson has made a specialty out of getting people to the polls, most often black voters and most often for black Democratic candidates. Nearly an entire generation of local and state lawmakers in Prince George’s and Baltimore owe at least one of their ballot-box successes — or failures — over the past 15 years to his no-holds-barred approach to campaigning.
Long before he worked for Ehrlich, Henson worked against him, labeling him in a previous campaign as “a Nazi.”
Now, to avoid jail for Henson, he and his attorney, Edward Smith Jr., will likely have to convince a jury that the recorded calls did not cross the line into illegality. Henson and Smith have maintained that the calls were an above-board attempt to aid Henson’s perhaps most unlikely employer — a white Republican.
In pre-trail motions and in interviews, Smith has argued that the calls, if not moral or nice, nonetheless amounted to free speech and were a far cry from notorious attempts to restrict the rights of blacks before the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
There are not many other available lines of defense, given that Henson took responsibility for the calls shortly after the election. At the time, he said the message was “counterintuitive,” and intended to motivate Ehrlich supporters to get out and vote in the election’s waning hours.
Ehrlich last year said the robocalls were “done outside of my purview,” according to a report in the Capital of Annapolis.
Ehrlich’s campaign paid Henson more than $111,000.
The case amounts to the third in an embarrassing, three-part series of legal dramas for Maryland politics this year.
— Former Prince George’s County Executive Jack B. Johnson and his wife pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges stemming from more than $400,000 in alleged bribes.
— State Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George’s Democrat who was long one of the most powerful and popular figures in the General Assembly, was acquitted last week of charged that he took nearly $250,000 in bribes to arrange political favors for a grocery store chain. Currie still faces possible censure by his colleagues for failing to disclose work on company’s behalf.
The latest courtroom revelations could further stain the failed re-election bid of Maryland’s only Republican governor in a generation, and further complicate efforts of Republicans to win statewide races in Maryland, where blacks account for a larger percentage of the population than anywhere outside the Deep South.
Based on documents obtained in the investigation, the indictments describe what prosecutors say was a strategy informed by Schurick and carried out by Henson to tamp down the black vote.
The plan, according to the indictments, “centered on what was termed ‘The Schurick Doctrine,’ which was designed to promote confusion, emotionalism, and frustration among African American Democrats. . . . The plan stated that [t]he first and most desired outcome [of the Schurick Doctrine strategy] is voter suppression.”
Schurick’s trial is scheduled for Nov. 28. His attorney A. Dwight Pettit, said prosecutors offered Schurick a plea deal in exchange for testimony against Henson, but Schurick declined and believes he will be acquitted.