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Woman who recorded robocall testifies at Schurick trial

The woman who recorded a robocall that prosecutors say was designed to suppress the black vote in last year’s election testified Wednesday that she was told not to identify the campaign that paid for the call as required by law.

Rhonda Russell, who worked for political consultant Julius Henson, testified in the trial of Paul Schurick, who was former Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s campaign director.

“He stated that the client didn’t want one,” Russell said, referring to Henson, while under questioning by prosecutors in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Russell’s voice can be heard on the robocall telling voters to “relax” because Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley had already won, hours before the polls closed. She testified she was told that the call to about 110,000 Democratic voters was “counterintuitive” and meant to stimulate voters to go to the polls and vote for Ehrlich, a Republican.

“It’s sort of like using reverse psychology,” Russell testified.

When asked by prosecutors whether she believed that was the true intention of the call, Russell replied, “I took it for what it was. I just did what I was asked to do.”

Russell also testified that she sent the calls to Democratic voters instead of Republican voters out of laziness, because phone numbers for Democratic voters were already loaded into a robodial system.

Schurick is accused of trying to suppress the vote on Election Day and failing to include a line at the end of the call identifying the campaign that paid for it. Henson, who faces similar charges, is scheduled for trial in February.

Prosecutors rested their case Wednesday afternoon on the second day of testimony. Defense attorney A. Dwight Pettit said he expects to call 20 to 25 witnesses, including Ehrlich and possibly former first lady Kendel Ehrlich. Most will be character witnesses, Pettit said. He also said he plans to have Schurick testify at the end of the trial. The defense contends the calls were made to stimulate voter turnout, not repress it.

Before the calls were sent in the late afternoon on Election Day, Russell said she sent three test calls to Henson and two other people. She said she didn’t know who the two others were at the time. When she was asked by prosecutors if she now knew who the other two calls were sent to, defense attorneys objected, and she did not answer.

Prosecutors later showed cell phone records indicating that Schurick and Greg Massoni, another longtime Ehrlich aide, received test calls.

Prosecutors also called Henry Fawell, the communications director for Ehrlich’s campaign, to the stand.

Fawell was asked about a document Henson brought to the campaign called “The Schurick Doctrine,” which prosecutors say was designed to “promote confusion, emotionalism and frustration” among black voters. The campaign strategy was rejected at a July meeting of top Ehrlich campaign advisers, participants say, because of its tone and cost. Henson requested more than $600,000 to implement the plan, Massoni testified Wednesday.

“I was troubled by the tone of it and troubled by the budget request that he was making,” Fawell said, referring to Henson.

Fawell also said Schurick did not like the proposal, either.

“I recall Mr. Schurick expressing his discomfort with what he saw in the document,” Fawell said.

Fawell testified that on Election Day, when he began receiving calls from reporters about the robocall, he initially denied the campaign’s association with it, because he had no knowledge of it and didn’t think it was something the campaign would use. But as reporters continued to call, Fawell called Schurick to ask about it.

“He said, ‘Don’t deny it,'” Fawell recalled.

When Fawell asked Schurick what he should tell the media, Fawell testified that Schurick told him, “I don’t know. Help me out.”

The jury also heard testimony from Bernie Marczyk, who was Ehrlich’s political director during the campaign.

Marczyk, who attended the July meeting when Henson presented his plan, testified that he opposed the proposal, which he believed was illegal.

“My understanding is that his proposal is illegal, yes,” Marczyk said.

Despite the campaign’s rejection of “The Schurick Doctrine,” prosecutors say concerns about African American voter turnout weighed heavily on Ehrlich’s campaign up until Election Day.

Schurick has been charged with two counts of conspiracy to violate state election laws. He also is charged with one count of attempting to influence a voter’s decision on 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. He also is charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly withholding documentation sought through a grand jury subpoena.

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