In the third day of the trial of political consultant Julius Henson on charges of election fraud, his only employee reluctantly testified about the robocalls at the center of the case and her opinion that they were designed to be “malicious.”
Rhonda Russell, the former political director of Progressive Maryland, was the sole employee of Henson’s companies, Politics Today and Universal Elections.
Russell testified under a grant of immunity from state prosecution, as she did last year in the trial of Paul E. Schurick, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s campaign manager in the 2010 gubernatorial race. Schurick was convicted last November for attempting to suppress the black vote in order to defeat Gov. Martin O’Malley’s re-election bid.
Russell claimed it was her decision, not Henson’s, to send the robocalls only to registered Democrats and that she did it to save time. She also said Henson told her on Election Day that the message, which said Democrats could “relax” and stay home because O’Malley had “been successful,” was a matter of reverse psychology.
While she cannot be prosecuted criminally, Russell is named as a defendant in a $168 million federal lawsuit filed by Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler for violating the Telephone Consumer Protection Act by engaging in robocalling without disclosing the company’s identity and telephone number, as the law requires. She was visibly reluctant to answer many of the questions pertaining to her employer.
Under questioning from Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt, Russell said she had some misgivings about the calls but did as she was told. She told the jury she lived with her terminally ill mother and two young children, who are her wards.
“I wasn’t thinking,” Russell said. “I was thinking about my family. It was financial for me.”
She said she did have some questions about the calls’ content, and Henson told her it was intended bid to spur complacent Ehrlich supporters to the polls.
“The counter-intuitive argument made sense at the time,” Russell said.
Russell said she was not scheduled to work on Election Day 2010, but got a call from Henson saying they might have some work to do. He called back shortly and provided her the copy for a call that was to go to more than 100,000 voters in Baltimore and Prince George’s County.
Russell recorded the copy, which was: “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.”
Russell said she set up the account, arranged payment for the calls and billed the clients, while Henson provided the copy and direction for the calls.
The owner of Robodial.org LLC, Mark Hampton, had testified earlier that his organization charged 1.3 cents per 30-second call. Hampton said the calling system was mostly automatic and that he did not screen the outgoing calls for content. Although not a nonprofit, despite the dot-org web domain, Hampton testified that he “preferred” to work with progressive, Democratic candidates.
Davitt asked Russell why she did not record an authority line, also known as a tag line — a requirement in political ads that tells what campaign or candidate is responsible for it.
“I was told the client didn’t want the tagline,” Russell said, referring to the Ehrlich campaign.
Davitt then questioned Russell about the testimony she gave before the grand jury prior to Henson’s indictment, regarding the Ehrlich campaign’s motivation.
Russell said told the grand jury she had misgivings about the content at the time, believing “the client’s motivation was malicious.”
But, she said, she did not voice that specific opinion to her boss, Henson. Instead, she said she believed the counter-intuitive argument and decided to go forward with the calls.
“There’s no campaign or consultant that is not above campaign tactics or tricks,” Russell said she told the grand jury. “It was two hours before the election, what harm would it have done?”
Russell was also questioned about whether black voters in Prince George’s County and Baltimore were targeted for the calls. Henson’s lawyer, Edward Smith Jr., asked her if his client had told her to only select black voters, or only Democrats.
No, she said. Instead, she was rushing to get the call together in a short time because she had other plans for that afternoon.
Less familiar with culling phone numbers for Republican voters, she said, she took the quicker route and cloned lists from two earlier robocall campaigns she had put together for Democrats in Baltimore and Prince George’s County. She said in retrospect, she should have taken the time to include voters from both parties.
“That not only would have the best thing to do, it would have been the right thing to do,” Russell said.
After multiple cross-examinations and re-directs, Davitt asked Russell if she still believed what she had told the grand jury initially.
“My belief now is really biased now after everything that’s happened,” she answered after a pause lasting several seconds. “I wish now that I had never done anything.”
The prosecution is expected to continue its case on Thursday. The trial is expected to last eight days.
Henson, 63, 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.
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