Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler on Wednesday sued Universal Elections Inc., claiming the company and senior officers violated federal law by sending recorded telephone messages to more than 112,000 Democrats in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County on Election Day saying “everything is fine” and the Democrats had already won.
The calls were made “with the intention of suppressing the vote” for Democrats, Gansler said in announcing the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
Gansler said he has “no reason to believe” the calls were initiated with the knowledge of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Gov. Martin O’Malley’s unsuccessful Republican opponent in the Nov. 2 election. However, the complaint alleges that “the defendants were hired as political consultants by the [Ehrlich] campaign.”
Andy Barth, a spokesman for Ehrlich, declined to comment on the litigation.
The lawsuit, which seeks $168 million in damages, alleges Baltimore-based Universal Elections, its owner and political consultant violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act by engaging in robocalling without disclosing the company’s identity and telephone number, as the law requires.
According to the complaint, the calls were made before polls closed and told recipients, “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 OK. Relax. Everything is fine. The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight. Congratulations and thank you.”
Telephone messages left at Universal Elections seeking comment on the lawsuit were not returned.
On its website, the company lists “phone contact” among its client services.
“Find and persuade your supporters with our live identification or persuasion calls,” the website states. “Innovatively, contact voters via automated phone calls (robocalls).”
Gansler said at the news conference that he brought the litigation to send a message to those who would seek to suppress voter turnout.
“We do not tolerate this type of behavior in Maryland,” he said.
On the federal level, Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., has requested a separate investigation by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Each violation of the U.S. Telephone Consumer Protection Act carries a $500 penalty. The 112,000 violations Gansler alleged would bring that figure to $56 million if the defendants are found liable.
That number could be tripled under the law to $168 million if the violations were made knowingly or willfully.
“Why else would they have made those calls” if not knowingly or willfully? Gansler said.
The attorney general, a Democrat, said the lawsuit against an alleged effort to suppress Democratic votes was not politically motivated.
“We don’t do things for political reasons here,” Gansler said.
In addition to Universal Elections, the lawsuit names as defendants its owner, Julius Henson, and political consultant Rhonda Russell.
Russell, who allegedly arranged the calls, was previously the political director for Progressive Maryland, a liberal advocacy group.
Henson is a longtime political strategist more commonly associated with Democrat candidates, including former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who lost to Ehrlich in 2002, and U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who won in 1996 with Henson’s help.
Gansler alleges in the lawsuit that the defendants retained Robodial.org LLC, a Pennsylvania company that provides telephone broadcasting services. The defendants sent Robodial.org the prerecorded message and a list of Maryland telephone numbers, the lawsuit claims.
“We have a list of the calls,” Gansler said. Most of those named on that list are registered Democrats in Baltimore and Prince George’s County, he said.