Updated at 4:58 p.m.
A senior aide and a consultant hired by former Maryland governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) were indicted Thursday in a case stemming from thousands of anonymous robocalls placed on election night last year that suggested voters could stay home even though the polls were still open.
Paul Schurick, 54, Ehrlich’s de facto campaign manager, and Julius Henson, 62, a consultant paid by the campaign, were both charged with three counts of conspiracy to violate election laws, one count of influencing votes through fraud and one count of failing to identify the sponsor of the calls. In addition, Schurick was charged on one count of obstruction of justice.
In a statement, the Office of the Maryland State Prosecutor, which obtained the indictments from a Baltimore grand jury, said its investigation is continuing. All but one of the charges handed down Thursday carry maximum prison sentences of five years.
Peter R. Zeidenberg, a lawyer representing Schurick, called the charges against his client “a fundamental misunderstanding of the facts” and said he would “vigorously contest” the case.
“Mr. Schurick never conspired with anyone to suppress the votes of any Maryland voters, and he did nothing to obstruct this investigation,” Zeidenberg said. “On the contrary, from the beginning Mr. Schurick has wanted all of the relevant facts to become known, because he is convinced that when the truth comes out, it will be clear that he did not violate any laws.”
Neither Henson nor a lawyer who has been representing him immediately returned phone calls.
Ehrlich’s campaign initially denied any involvement in the calls, in which recipients, many of them in the heavily Democratic jurisdictions of Baltimore and Prince George’s County, were told by an unidentified woman that they could “relax” because Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) had already been “successful” in his rematch against Ehrlich.
The state prosecutor said Thursday that more than 110,000 calls were placed to Democratic voters in those two majority-African American jurisdictions.
Henson, a consultant hired to help Ehrlich with African-American voters, publicly took responsibility for the calls last fall and said Ehrlich himself probably had no knowledge of them.
Henson told reporters in November that the message was “counterintuitive” — that the calls were intended to motivate Ehrlich supporters to vote in the election’s final hours. O’Malley won the election by more than 14 percentage points.
Ehrlich has said he was not aware of the calls and does not believe robocalls are effective. He was brought before the grand jury investigating the case last month, according to several people familiar with the appearance, but there has been no indication he is a target of the probe.
In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, Ehrlich said: “I believe in the rule of law. I believe in my friend and colleague, Paul Schurick. I hope a fair resolution is reached as quickly as possible for both Paul and Mr. Henson.”
Ehrlich did not immediately return a phone call placed to his law office in Washington.
Schurick is a long-time associate of Ehrlich. During Ehrlich’s four-year tenure as governor, which ended after his first defeat by O’Malley in 2006, he served as Ehrlich’s communications director.
Schurick was among several former Ehrlich aides given positions at the Baltimore office of the law firm that Ehrlich joined following his 2006 loss.
State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt was appointed in November 2010 by O’Malley to a six-year term. The jurisdiction of the office, which operates independently of the governor’s office, includes election-law cases.
The robocalls episode is also the subject of a separate civil suit brought by Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D) in federal court.
Gansler said that Henson and an associate with his company, Universal Elections, placed more than 112,000 calls in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act -- each of which carries a potential penalty of $500. Gansler said the violations were knowing and willful, and he has asked the U.S District Court for the District of Maryland to triple the damages.
In a filing in response to Gansler’s suit, a lawyer for Henson argued that the case should be dismissed, suggesting that even “dirty tricks” are protected free speech.
“The damage promoted even to deceptive political speech is far greater than the evil it seeks to prevent,” wrote Henson’s lawyer, Edward Smith Jr.
“The so-called ‘dirty tricks’ of politics have been well-known to the body politic of the United States of America,” the filing says. “While the practices are certainly of questionable ethical techniques … [g]overnment should not regulate political messages for truthfulness.”
Smith later sought to delay consideration of the civil suit, arguing that it could interfere with two ongoing criminal probes of the matter: one being pursued by the state prosecutor and another by a federal grand jury.
In a recent filing, Gansler strongly opposed the delay in the civil case, writing: “The Attorney General has a strong interest in an expeditious action so that Defendants are punished for their actions on Election Day 2010, and more importantly, are prevented from repeating their illegal conduct in the future.”
According to Thursday’s indictments, the full recording stated: “Hello. I’m calling to let everyone know that Governor O’Malley and President Obama have been successful. Our goals have been met. The polls were correct, and we took it back. We’re okay. Relax. Everything’s fine. The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight. Congratulations, and thank you.”