Two campaign aides to Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pleaded not guilty Monday to charges that they violated election laws last fall by ordering Election Day robocalls to Democratic homes in predominantly African-American areas that suggested the vote was over.
Monday's arraignment was the first appearance in Baltimore Circuit Court by Paul Schurick, a longtime Ehrlich aide, and Julius Henson, a consultant to Ehrlich's 2010 campaign.
Henson and a consulting company employee also are accused in a multimillion-dollar civil complaint in federal court.
Neither Henson nor Schurick spoke at Monday's hearing. Their attorneys entered not guilty pleas on their behalf.
Prosecutors say a recorded message that went out to more than 112,000 homes last Nov. 2 urged Democratic voters in Baltimore and Prince George's County to "relax" and stay home because Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley and President Barack Obama "have already been successful." In fact, the polls were still open.
Henson has acknowledged ordering the calls. He told The Baltimore Sun in November that the calls were "counterintuitive" and were intended to encourage Ehrlich supporters to get out and vote.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill set the criminal trial for Sept. 22, though State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt and defense attorneys said they would seek to have the case specially set before a single judge because of the number of pre-trial motions they anticipate.
Schurick and Henson each face three counts of conspiracy to violate elections laws, election fraud and failure to include an authority line on campaign materials. Schurick also is charged with obstruction of justice.
If convicted, Henson and Schurick could be sentenced to five years in prison for each election law and voter influence count, and one year for the authority line violations.
Outside the courthouse, A. Dwight Pettit, Schurick's new attorney, said he is "sure that when the facts come out [Schurick] will be exonerated."
Schurick, 55, of Crownsville, stood nearby with his wife and daughter but declined to comment.
Pettit, one of Baltimore's best-known defense attorneys and a longtime Ehrlich supporter, said he has known Schurick for 10 years.
"I would not take the case if I was not convinced of Mr. Schurick's innocence," he said. Pettit said the case could reveal "hints" of a political motive on the part of the state prosecutor, who was appointed late last year by O'Malley.
The state prosecutor's office began investigating the robocalls case before that appointment.
In court paperwork from the grand jury indictment last month, prosecutors describe "The Schurick Doctrine," which they said had a stated goal "to promote confusion, emotionalism, and frustration among African-American Democrats."
The obstruction charge stems from an allegation that Schurick failed to provide investigators with a complete copy of "The Schurick Doctrine" memo described in the indictment.
Schurick was a communications director for Democratic former Gov. William Donald Schaefer and for Ehrlich while he was governor. He also served as Ehrlich's de facto campaign director in Ehrlich's 2010 return bid. Schurick said Monday that he is working as a self-employed consultant, but declined give any additional details.
Henson, 62, of East Baltimore has been a fixture in Maryland politics for decades, helping Democratic candidates at the state and local level. The indictment accuses Henson of tapping resources from his Democratic clients when designing a voter suppression strategy for Ehrlich.
A federal judge recently ruled that a civil case, filed last year by Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, can proceed at the same time as the criminal matter. Court documents show that Judge Catherine C. Blake plans a conference call Aug. 1 with the attorneys to set a schedule.
Henson and Schurick had little contact in the courtroom Monday. They sat on separate benches and acknowledged each other only briefly when they took their places in front of the judge.