Defendant Takes Stand in Maryland Robocall Trial

Ehrlich aide accused of trying to suppress vote

By ALEX DOMINGUEZ
|  Friday, Dec 2, 2011  |  Updated 10:21 PM EDT
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Defendant Takes Stand in Md. Robocall Trial

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A political aide for former Gov. Robert Ehrlich testified in his own defense Friday, telling jurors he rejected suggestions by a consultant to suppress the black vote during the 2010 Maryland gubernatorial election.

Longtime Ehrlich aide Paul Schurick said consultant Julius Henson presented the strategy during a July meeting, and he dismissed the suggestion.

“I said to him we had no interest, whatsoever, in voter suppression,” Schurick testified, adding that the “meeting ended badly.”

However, Schurick later testified that he approved the script for a pre-recorded, automated telephone call sent late in the afternoon on Election Day to about 110,000 Democratic voters. The call assured voters Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, had defeated Ehrlich, a Republican.

Schurick said during questioning by his attorney that the Ehrlich campaign hired Henson because it needed help increasing support among black voters, who accounted for 15 percent of Ehrlich support when he won the governor's office, and half that amount four years later when Ehrlich first lost to O'Malley.

The former aide said the campaign strategy was to increase black support to 12 or 13 percent, hoping to win a close election by as few as 10,000 votes, of which 3,000 to 4,000 would be black crossover voters. But on Election Day, turnout was lower than hoped and Schurick acknowledged that he approved the script of the call after he asked Henson for ideas.

“I recall saying to Julius, ‘I'm paying you $16,000 a month, give us a plan,’” Schurick testified. “We have to do something to get those three to four thousand votes.”

Henson is also charged in the case. His trial is scheduled for February.

During cross-examination, prosecutor Mike McDonough asked Schurick whether a lower turnout among black voters would have helped Ehrlich.

“Isn't it a fact that on Election Day you realized Mr. Henson was right?” McDonough asked Schurick during a lengthy cross-examination peppered with constant objections from the defense.

“No,” Schurick answered tersely at one point, later telling McDonough there was a fundamental misunderstanding by prosecutors about the purpose of the automated calls.

Schurick said the plan that Henson came back with on Election Day was an automated call that would serve as a wake-up to potential crossover voters that he said Henson described as counter-intuitive and unusual.

“I accepted it, he's the expert,” Schurick said.

Prosecutors have argued the calls were an effort by the Republican campaign to reduce the number of black Democrats voting in heavily Democratic Maryland. Witnesses called by the defense have testified it was actually intended to stimulate people to vote for Ehrlich by using reverse psychology.

“Hello. I'm calling to let everybody know that Governor O'Malley and President Obama have been successful,” the call said. “Our goals have been met. The polls were correct, and we took it back. We're OK. Relax. Everything's fine. The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight. Congratulations, and thank you.”

Schurick is charged with two counts of conspiracy to violate state election laws. Schurick also is charged with one count of attempting to influence a voter's decision whether to go to the polls through the use of fraud and one count of failing to provide an authority line on distributed campaign material. The authority line violation carries a maximum of a year in prison if convicted. The other charges carry up to five years in prison on each count if convicted.

McDonough also produced a September 2010 email from Schurick that said he supported not using an authority line. However, Schurick said the email did not contain an attachment and he could not recall what it was about.

“The fact that I said that tells me it was not anything I believe was subject to the requirement of an authority line,” Schurick said.

Earlier Friday, ministers, a firefighter and state officials who worked with Schurick for decades took the stand to testify about his character.

The character witnesses include the Rev. John Heath, who worked on Ehrlich's 2002 campaign. Heath told the jury that suppressing turnout was never discussed during that election and the campaign worked to earn the black vote.

“No, quite to the contrary,” Heath testified, saying the goal was always “to work with the community and earn that vote.”

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