Schurick's behavior wrong, but not criminal

Professor Richard Vatz asks: Why are dirty political tactics prosecuted only when done by a Republican campaign?

December 11, 2011|By Richard E. Vatz

As you read the initial outcome of the first political trial regarding robocalls, you may have thought you were in one of those totalitarian countries that calls itself the "Democratic Republic" of something or other. Or you may have thought you were in the Middle East.

According to The Baltimore Sun's description, Paul Schurick, a former top aide to then-governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., was found, by a Baltimore City jury, "guilty of fraud and related charges ... for his role in an Election Day 2010 robocall — a decision hailed by government watchdog groups ..." I cannot imagine anything more impressive than the opinions of "government watchdog groups."

I have met, but do not know, Paul Schurick, and the little I have heard about him does not comport with the "nice guy" descriptions I have heard from testimony in the case.

But there is no way to describe this outrageous outcome except as Democrats seeking juridical retribution for Democrat Schurick's political incorrectness in supporting Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's re-election.

Stipulated: The robocalls that went out to hundreds of thousands of Baltimore City and Prince George's County residences that afternoon in November 2010 were outrageously unfair and deceptive political campaigning. Though the polls were still open, they claimed that the election of Gov. Martin O'Malley was a fait accompli. The goal was to discourage African-Americans from voting, despite claims to the contrary of "counterintuitive" strategies of encouraging Republicans to vote.

This is dirty campaigning, heavy-handed and irresponsible. But it should not be legally actionable.

Political operative Julius Henson, author of those robocalls, has a long history of dirty campaigning — for Democrats.

He has, according to the Baltimore City Paper, promiscuously distributed materials in circumstances where it is illegal to do so; he has lied, claiming then-Representative Ehrlich was a Nazi; and he manufactured the falsehood that Ellen Sauerbrey was opposed to civil rights, among other mendacities. He has aided, with his contemptible tactics, Democrats Joan Pratt, Elijah Cummings (using robocalls as well), Albert Wynn and many others. (If Mr. Ehrlich is described as a "Nazi," wouldn't that suppress Republican votes? If inaccurate polling — remember the Clarence "Du" Burns-Kurt Schmoke push polls — is very one-sided, won't money dry up and voting by conservatives be discouraged?)

Soon, it will be Mr. Henson's turn to face trial. It would seem that the same person committing comparable acts in Maryland for Democrats and Republicans risks prosecution only when he attacks Democrats.

What's more, despicable campaign ads and persuasion in today's media climate are almost always counter-productive. They take care of themselves — this robocall trick did not work, remember.

The state prosecutor, Emmet C. Davitt, was described in a Sun article as "a Catonsville resident and father of four [who] has supported Democratic politicians, making about two dozen small political donations since 2002, according to campaign finance records ... [his] donations include $468 to O'Malley in seven checks." Mr. Davitt was appointed to his position by Mr. O'Malley.

When Mr. Davitt says his goal is to "send a message to political campaigns to clean up their acts," he either means send a message to Republicans or that he will be the arbiter of what political speech is unacceptable. Either is a democratically repugnant threat to free speech.

A professor friend of mine, Paul Oehlke, says it simply and clearly: "Philosophically, political discourse requires the freest of speech, unencumbered by legal sanction."

Although Maryland may be Democratic and very leftist, we do not yet have a system of justice that criminalizes political speech. But perhaps we are moving in that direction.

Professor Richard E. Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University. He is the author of "The Only Authentic Book 0f Persuasion" (Kendall Hunt, 2012). His email is

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.