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Another count dismissed in robocall trial

A judge on Thursday dismissed an obstruction of justice charge against Paul Schurick, a longtime aide to former Gov. Robert Ehrlich, but denied defense requests to throw out charges alleging Schurick played a role in trying to suppress the black vote in last year’s rematch between Ehrlich and Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Paul Schurick

Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Fletcher-Hill also denied a request by Schurick’s lawyers to dismiss a charge that he failed to provide an authority line on distributed campaign material indicating who initiated a robocall at the heart of the case. Prosecutors say the Election Day call, which went to about 110,000 Democratic voters, was sent with Schurick’s approval to discourage voters from going to the polls. Schurick was the campaign manager for the former Republican governor in the 2010 election against the Democrat O’Malley.

“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.”

The obstruction of justice charge dismissed by the judge related to allegations that Schurick withheld documents sought by a subpoena.

Fletcher-Hill said the evidence failed to support that allegation. While the judge said the jury will decide the other charges, he said the public has an interest in knowing who is speaking in distributed campaign material in order to make an informed decision.

“It plainly misrepresents the source of the message,” Fletcher-Hill said during a motions hearing with prosecutors and defense attorneys before the jury was brought in to hear the third day of testimony in the case.

The robocall call was sent to voters in Baltimore and Prince George’s County — two jurisdictions with large numbers of African American Democratic voters.

Matthew Bennett, an attorney representing Schurick, argued that prosecutors have failed to show the call actually suppressed voters.

“There’s got to be an actual showing,” Bennett said.

But the judge said the law also prohibits attempts to suppress voter turnout.

Defense attorneys have argued the call actually was sent to stimulate people to vote for Ehrlich. Bennett cited the testimony of two voters who spoke in court about receiving the call. One had already voted when she heard it on her answering machine, and the other, a registered Democrat, said the call upset him enough that he went out and voted after he heard it.

Prosecutors have pointed out that both voters who testified reported the call to authorities.

“This message is unquestionably fraudulent,” Deputy State Prosecutor Thomas McDonough said during the motions hearing.

Meanwhile, defense attorneys began calling witnesses in the case, including former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, who held the office when Ehrlich, a Republican, was governor. Steele was Maryland’s first African American to be elected to statewide office, and he went on to become the first black chairman of the Republican Party.

Steele described Schurick as a smart and careful aide.

“I’ve always found him to be a straight shooter,” Steele said.

Schurick is 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 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.

Julius Henson, a political consultant, also is charged in the case. His trial is scheduled for February.