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Henson: Prosecution is political payback

On trial for election fraud charges, longtime political consultant Julius Henson claims he was targeted by Democrats for daring to work with Republicans who, he said, threw him under the bus when trouble arose and did not even pay him.

Henson’s attorney, Edward Smith Jr., told jurors his client had spent years getting Democrats elected before deciding, in 2010, that he wanted to work on the comeback campaign of former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. — a Republican.

“It was one of the first times he jumped over the line,” Smith said. “And, that’s jumping over the line.”

Smith said testimony would show that Henson’s decision to work for a Republican led to him being targeted.

“This is where you’ll see the not-so-nice part of this situation and what the big government wants to do to people who step out of line,” he told jurors during opening statements in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Henson, 63, was charged last June with conspiring with Paul E. Schurick, Ehrlich’s former campaign manager in the 2010 gubernatorial race, to sabotage Gov. Martin O’Malley’s reelection by suppressing the vote.

Henson faces two counts of conspiracy to violate election laws, one count of election fraud and one count of violating the authority line requirement. This case is thought to be the first time charges have been brought under a statute revised in 2006.

The case centers on a series of automated “robocalls” that were made to black voters in Prince George’s County and Baltimore who were registered Democrats, urging them to stay home, “relax” and watch the Democrats’ victory on television.

In opening statements Tuesday, Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt told jurors the prosecution would show two things: that the calls were meant to influence voters and Henson was the one behind the calls. He said the first would be easy to prove.

“The goal was to have as many African-American voters as possible stay home on Election Day,” Davitt said.

Davitt said Henson signed a contract with the Ehrlich campaign for $16,000 a month plus a bonus if the Republican won the gubernatorial election. Davitt said that Henson was hired as part of the campaign’s efforts to reach out to the African-American community.

To accomplish this, Henson drafted a strategy that came to be known as the “Schurick Doctrine.” Davitt said that plan’s goal was not one of outreach, but instead was one of suppressing the black vote while also sowing confusion and attempting to raise anger among voters for Gov. Martin O’Malley.

The Schurick Doctrine, though, was turned down by the Ehrlich campaign. Henry P. Fawell, who served as Ehrlich’s director of communications in the 2010 election, testified after opening statements about his reaction to the plan.

He said when he saw the plan he recommended that the campaign cut ties with Henson.

“I don’t think it was consistent with what Gov. Ehrlich wanted from the campaign,” Fawell said. “It was dishonest and Bob Ehrlich is as honest as the day is long.”

Davitt told the jurors that Henson followed through with the tactic anyway, which ultimately led to the robocalls.

“The idea that voter suppression was the way to go did not leave Mr. Henson’s mind,” Davitt said.

Davitt closed by asking the jurors not to buy into the defense’s arguments that it was all about politics. He also told the jury not to forget the seriousness of the crimes Henson is alleged to have committed, which were an attempt to thwart citizens’ inalienable right to vote.

“We don’t need anyone doing anything to affect that right, or discourage that right,” Davitt said. “This wasn’t just a dirty political trick, it’s against the law.”

Prosecutors called as witnesses two recipients of the calls, one from Prince George’s County and one a white resident of Baltimore. Both said the call was confusing and seemed off, considering the call came before polls had closed and yet seemed to reference a win.

Retaliation

Smith opened his case by reminding the jury that they are the arbiters of whether his client had violated the law or is being targeted for political retaliation for working for a Republican candidate in a majority Democratic state.

“You make the decision about what constitutes justice — not the government,” Smith said.

Smith described his client as “Maryland, born and bred.” He went on to tell jurors about how Henson left home at 15, lived in a car for a while and eventually went to college where he excelled at wrestling and graduated with a degree. Smith said Henson became interested in politics and went on to start Universal Elections and another company.

Emphasizing his theme of political payback, Smith reminded the jury that Maryland is primarily a one-party state, with the Democrats holding the majority for many years. Smith even trotted out some American history and told the jury that the Democratic hold on the state stretched back to before the Civil War, with the earliest challengers being the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party, which won only Maryland in electoral votes in the 1856 presidential election.

Even so, Smith said he did not fault prosecutors for pursuing the case but told jurors again that his client was being singled out.

“The problem is this man did not want to oppress the African-American vote in any way, shape or form,” Smith said. “But, you know how it is when people leave you holding the bag.”

To add insult to injury, Smith told the jury that after the work was done for the Ehrlich campaign he was not compensated for it.

“When the bill was presented to them by Universal Elections, they didn’t even pay him,” Smith said.

The case is set to resume on Wednesday. The trial is expected to last eight days.

A city jury last November convicted Schurick of attempting to influence a voter’s decision whether to go to the polls to cast a vote through the use of fraud; sending robocalls without an “authority line” to inform voters the calls were made at the Ehrlich campaign’s behest; and conspiracy.

He was sentenced to home detention and community service.