If criminal convictions were not enough, add $1 million in civil penalties to the list of reasons Maryland politicos may think twice about ordering another election-night robo-call that could be viewed as trying to suppress voter turnout.
A federal judge on Tuesday sided with Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and ordered that a consultant to former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) should pay for each of 112,000 automated phone calls that failed to identify Ehrlich’s campaign as the one that paid for the messages.
The calls were placed to homes of tens of thousands of African American Democrats in Prince George’s County and Baltimore on Election Day 2010. They told listeners to “relax” and to not worry about going to the polls, because the incumbent, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), and President Obama had already been “successful” in the day’s voting.
The Office of the Maryland State Prosecutor successfully pursued criminal charges against Ehrlich campaign manager Paul E. Schurick, who ordered the calls, and campaign consultant Julius Henson, who crafted the message and arranged the calls.
Gansler (D), however, sought civil penalties against the latter. He argued that a hefty fine against Henson might be the most effective deterrent against similar attempts to influence voter turnout.
U.S. District Court Judge Catherine Blake agreed that a fine was in order. She ruled Tuesday that Henson and his company, Universal Elections, must pay $1 million in damages for violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. A Henson employee who recorded the message was also fined $10,000.
It was far from the $168 million ruling Gansler had initially said he would seek and the $10 million fine he later asked Blake to impose. She said the higher amount Gansler had sought was disproportionate to the size of Henson’s firm and what he could probably pay.
Ehrlich’s campaign paid Universal and another company controlled by Henson over $100,000 in connection with the 2010 election.
In a 13-page memorandum, Blake wrote that Henson knowingly violated federal law requiring identification of the sponsor of campaign messages. She wrote that he did so “with the express purpose of suppressing the votes of a minority group in a contested statewide gubernatorial election.
“While Henson’s efforts on behalf of the Ehrlich Campaign were ultimately unsuccessful, his actions nonetheless damaged public faith in the democratic process that is at the core of our system of government.”
In a statement, Gansler said the ruling showed his office had been tough on the political shenanigans. “I vowed to discover who was responsible for these voter suppression robocalls and hold the perpetrators responsible,” he said. “With this verdict, that is exactly what we have done.”
Henson did not immediately return a call seeking comment. His attorney, Edward Smith, had repeatedly accused Gansler of using the civil case to grandstand for political gain.
Henson was convicted of conspiracy this month for his role in organizing the calls. He is scheduled to be sentenced June 13.