Ehrlich campaign accused of deception

Attorneys maintain `no fraud or corruption' in hiring of homeless

April 19, 2003|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

UPPER MARLBORO -- State prosecutors said yesterday that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign hired hundreds of homeless people to hand out Election Day literature in an attempt to deceive voters and create "the illusion of support."

"They were hired to pose as supporters," Assistant State Prosecutor Thomas M. McDonough told Prince George's County Circuit Judge Richard H. Sothoron Jr.

The accusation came during a hearing in the case of three people charged with violating a 1979 state law that bars the use of so-called "walk-around money," the payment of Election Day poll workers. Lawyers for the three defendants, however, say the law is unconstitutional and the charges must be thrown out.

"There's no fraud or corruption in this case. No evidence of vote buying," said Larry Nathans, the lawyer for Shirley R. Brookins, who is charged with recruiting and paying the homeless workers.

Calling the law an infringement on free speech, Nathans said the statute was too vague and was aimed at problems that no longer exist. Instead of being "one of those rare gems," as required under state and federal court rulings, Nathans said the law was "a crude stone."

Prosecutors "haven't proven anything," he added.

Brookins, 56, who heads a Washington temporary employment agency, has been charged along with Steven P. Martin, 31, of Capitol Heights and Rashida S. Hogg, 23, of Silver Spring of violating the nearly 25-year-old statute.

If convicted on the charges, they could be sentenced to up to a year in jail and fined $25,000 each. All three defendants were on hand for yesterday's hearing.

ACLU weighs in

The arguments by Nathans and other defense lawyers were supported in a brief filed by attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union who said the law violated the U.S. Constitution and the Maryland Declaration of Rights.

Pointing to the charges against Brookins, ACLU attorneys wrote in the friend-of-the-court brief, "There is neither vote buying or any appearance of vote buying in such activity."

McDonough, however, said the mere use of paid partisan Election Day workers could give voters the impression the election could be bought.

"It's the appearance that is as important as the reality," McDonough argued. "There is nothing more valuable than the confidence of the voter in the election process."

He said the law was "as narrowly drawn as possible" and met constitutional requirements.

A `necessary' statute

Sothoron, in brief questioning, noted that other state laws bar the "buying of votes" and other election abuses.

"The statute is necessary to prevent the appearance of a quid pro quo," McDonough responded.

Sothoron said he would issue a written decision on the constitutionality challenge by the end of the month. If he upholds the law, the cases against the three will go to trial.

Court records show the payment of the Election Day workers was witnessed by an investigator from State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli's office, who watched as more than 100 homeless persons were paid $150 each the day after the election.

Brookins' lawyers have acknowleded that the workers were paid.

"The papers Ms. Brookins paid people to distribute were campaign materials," Nathans stated in a 16-page brief filed Feb. 19.

In addition to the homeless workers from Washington, the Democrats for Ehrlich Committee recruited high school and college students from Prince George's County to hand out campaign materials on Election Day. The students, however, said they were never paid as promised.

The charges against Hogg and Martin stem from the student recruitment efforts.

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