Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Former Ehrlich aide’s robocall trial begins

The trial of Paul E. Schurick, accused of trying to sabotage Gov. Martin O’Malley’s re-election last fall with robocalls, will be heard by a Baltimore judge whose wife received one of the controversial phone messages.

“I have absolutely no concerns about my ability to be fair and impartial,” Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill told attorneys for the state and Schurick on Monday. He then asked the lawyers if they objected to him presiding over the politically charged trial.

Neither Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt nor A. Dwight Pettit, Schurick’s lead attorney, objected.

Schurick, a former aide to ex-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., is charged with violating state law by allegedly coordinating Election Day 2010 telephone calls intended to suppress Democratic voter turnout in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County. Ehrlich, a Republican, failed in his bid to reclaim the governorship from O’Malley in last year’s election.

Schurick, 55, faces a maximum sentence of 26 years in prison if convicted on all counts related to voter suppression, voter fraud and withholding documents.

Ehrlich, who is not charged in the case, is listed in court papers as a potential witness during the trial, which is expected to last five days.

Monday’s opening court session ended with the selection of a 12-person jury consisting of eight women and four men, seven black and five white. Three alternate jurors were also selected, two women and one man, two white and one black.

Opening statements are scheduled for Tuesday.

Joining Ehrlich on the potential witness list are his former lieutenant governor, Michael Steele; former Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel; U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md.; Baltimore City Comptroller Joan M. Pratt; Baltimore City Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway; former Prince George’s County Executive Wayne K. Curry; and Linda H. Lamone, administrator of the Maryland State Board of Elections.

Cummings, through a lawyer, was the only potential witness to urge Fletcher-Hill to excuse him from testifying. Attorney Paul D. Shelton also pressed the judge to quash the defense’s request that Cummings provide all documents relating to his business dealings with Schurick’s alleged co-conspirator, Julius Henson.

Those dealings consisted only of political consulting Henson performed for Cummings in 1996, Shelton said. The defense is “overreaching” in its blanket request for documents, which — if they do exist — would be irrelevant to the state’s allegations against Schurick, said Shelton, of McKennon Shelton & Henn LLP in Baltimore.

“I think it’s a fishing expedition, a total waste of his [Cummings’] time,” Shelton told Fletcher-Hill. referring to the defense’s request for documents and the congressman’s testimony.

But Pettit, Schurick’s attorney, said he wants to question Cummings about calls he reportedly made on Election Day 2010 urging voters to ignore the robocalls. As a criminal defendant, Schurick has a right to question Cummings about his knowledge of the robocalls at the center of the case, Pettit, a Baltimore solo practitioner, told the judge.

Fletcher-Hill agreed that Cummings’ testimony about what he did on that Election Day, Nov. 2, 2010, would presumably be relevant and thus he could be called as a witness.

“How are the Election Day events not relevant to this case?” the judge asked.

But Fletcher-Hill rejected the defense’s request for the documents, calling it “broad and unduly burdensome” and irrelevant to the case.

According to the indictment, Schurick and Henson hatched a scheme under which automated calls were made to 112,544 registered Democrats in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County before the polls closed last fall, telling them to “relax” because the Democrats had “been successful.”

The men allegedly retained LLC, a Pennsylvania company that provides telephone broadcasting services, to send out the pre-recorded message to a specified list of telephone numbers.

The message said, “Hello. I’m calling to let everyone know that Gov. 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.”

Schurick and Henson are charged with three counts of conspiracy to violate state election laws. They are also charged with one count of attempting to influence through fraud a voter’s decision about going to the polls and one count of failing to provide an authority line on distributed campaign material.

Schurick, who served as then-Gov. Ehrlich’s communications director from 2004 to 2007, faces an additional charge of obstruction of justice for allegedly withholding documentation sought through a grand jury subpoena.

Henson, who faces a maximum sentence of 21 years in prison, was scheduled to go on trial Nov. 15. But his trial was postponed until Feb. 6 after the Baltimore City Circuit Court judge assigned to the case, Charles J. Peters, recused himself because O’Malley had appointed him to the bench.

The Baltimore court’s assignment judge, Wanda K. Heard, told counsel in Schurick’s case that she had secured the approval of Fletcher-Hill — also an O’Malley appointee — before assigning him to preside.

Henson, 62, is a longtime political strategist more commonly associated with Democratic candidates, including former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who lost a gubernatorial race to Ehrlich in 2002, and Cummings, who won in 1996 with Henson’s help.