Julius Henson, who owns Universal Elections and admitted that… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
The automated Election Day phone calls telling Marylanders to "relax" because Gov. Martin O'Malley had already won were generated by a Democratic operative who said he was working for Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
The Baltimore Sun tracked the calls, which came while polls were still open, to a company called Robodial.org, a Pennsylvania-based outfit that works exclusively for progressive and Democratic candidates.
The company's owner said a representative of Universal Elections of Baltimore paid for and recorded the call. The owner of Universal, longtime campaign operative Julius Henson, acknowledged Friday that he was behind the effort.
The recording told voters that O'Malley had been successful and that "the only thing left is to watch TV tonight." It was widely interpreted as an effort to suppress voter turnout in heavily Democratic Baltimore, and it prompted an immediate outcry from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Henson acknowledged that the call was made on behalf of Ehrlich, the former governor who paid Henson's companies tens of thousands of dollars this year. But the intent, Henson said, was to motivate supporters of the Republican nominee.
"We believe the call was made for voters in Baltimore City who were not going to go to the polls, to go to the polls and vote," Henson said. "It never said, 'Don't vote.'"
Henson was vague about how the decision was made to employ the tactic. "I'm on the Bob Ehrlich team, and we thought a call like that would help, and we made the [decision]," Henson said, adding that Ehrlich himself "probably" didn't know about it.
An Ehrlich spokesman, who on election night labeled the calls "absolutely irresponsible," declined to comment Friday.
The recorded voice did not identify who was paying for the calls, as state law requires. Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler has pledged to investigate possible fraud or voter suppression. U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin also asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to launch a probe.
A state law passed in 2005 also states that "a person may not willfully and knowingly influence or attempt to influence a voter's decision whether to go to the polls to cast a vote through the use of force, fraud, threat, menace, intimidation, bribery, reward, or offer of reward."
Henson has a history of rough-and-tumble campaign tactics.
In the 1998 gubernatorial race, he masterminded an effort to paint Republican nominee Ellen R. Sauerbrey as a racist through fliers and other materials depicting her as an enemy of civil rights.
He disrupted a key endorsement of O'Malley's first mayoral campaign in 1999 while working for a competitor, and forced defense attorney Warren Brown out of a Baltimore state's attorney's race by digging into his personal life.
In 2002, Henson was hired by then-Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and vowed to portray Ehrlich, her opponent in the governor's race, as a "Nazi" in an effort to win black voters. But the former governor said he did not hold a grudge, and for this year's campaign directed more than $97,000 to two companies affiliated with Henson — Universal and Politics Today.
The bulk of that money — $82,150 — went to Politics Today, which is currently at risk of losing its state business license because of failure to submit forms due in April 2009, said Bob Young, assistant director of the state Department of Taxation and Assessments. The company has until Dec. 3 to turn in the paperwork or it could lose its business license, Young said.
Mark Hampton, the owner of Robodial.org, said the Election Day call was paid for by Rhonda Russell, a Universal employee who previously was political director for the liberal group Progressive Maryland. Russell could not be reached for comment.
The Robodial.org website says the company will work only for progressive and Democratic causes and candidates in the general election, and upon learning of details about the call from a reporter, Hampton revoked Russell's account.
"The consultant who set up that call has been using our system for a couple of years, and in the past we understood that her calls were in support of Democratic candidates," Hampton told The Sun in an e-mail. "Apparently something has changed."
The Election Night call starting going out about 6:30 p.m., according to some who received it, and Hampton said it reached about 50,000 homes. It featured a woman's voice — which Henson said was Russell — saying that O'Malley and President Barack Obama had been successful and that "our goals have been met."
As word of the call spread, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who was elected to his seat in 1996 with Henson's help, quickly recorded a rebuttal call stressing that the election was not over.
Cummings declined to comment on Henson specifically until an investigation was completed.