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Gansler files complaint over Ehrlich camp's election-night robocalls

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 9:02 PM

Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler filed a complaint Wednesday against a political aide who worked for former Republican governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., alleging that his anonymous election-night robocalls were designed to suppress the Democratic vote and violated federal law.

If Gansler (D) prevails, the civil action could prove costly for Julius Henson, a Baltimore-based political consultant who has worked for dozens of Democrats. He was paid nearly $100,000 this year by Ehrlich's campaign in its losing effort against Gov. Martin O'Malley (D).

Gansler says 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.

Henson last week took responsibility for the calls, which suggested that O'Malley had won and that voters could "relax" and stay home, although polls were still open. Henson said the message was "counterintuitive" - that the calls were intended to motivate Ehrlich supporters to vote in the election's final hours.

Henson, who did not respond to phone messages left Wednesday, told reporters last week that Ehrlich "probably" did not know about the calls. Ehrlich's campaign has declined to comment.

Gansler said voters who received the calls were predominantly registered Democrats in Baltimore and Prince George's County, majority-black jurisdictions.

Gansler said in an interview that he chose to pursue a civil action rather than a criminal case partly because election-law violations rarely result in jail time.

He said a hefty fine - the complaint seeks damages of more than $168 million, plus attorneys' fees - would send a strong message.

"The conduct that occurred here was an attempt to suppress voter turnout," Gansler said. "We want the people responsible to be held accountable. This kind of conduct is inappropriate."

Other investigations of the episode could produce criminal charges.

The state prosecutor's office, whose jurisdiction includes election-law violations, has opened an inquiry. And Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) has asked U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to look into the matter.

According to Gansler's complaint, the full message in the robocalls was: "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 is fine. The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight. Congratulations, and thank you."

Federal law requires such calls to clearly identify who is behind them. Gansler said voters would have been left with a much different impression if they had been told Ehrlich's campaign was responsible.

The number of alleged calls - more than 112,000 - is significantly higher than than the 50,000 suggested last week by the owner of robodial.org, the Pennsylvania-based robocall company that facilitated them.

Besides Henson and his company, the complaint names Rhonda Russell, a Henson employee. Russell, who lives in the District, did not return a phone call Wednesday.

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