Saying the offenses strike at the "values of this nation," a judge sentenced Paul E. Schurick, the campaign manager of former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., to home detention and community service Thursday for approving automated Election Day telephone calls to keep black voters from the polls.
The sentencing went forward even as Schurick's attorneys sought a new trial, alleging that the credibility of a key prosecution witness has been undermined. Baltimore Circuit Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill spared Schurick prison time by suspending a one-year sentence and forgoing fines.
He sentenced Schurick to 30 days of home detention with electronic monitoring, four years of unsupervised probation and 500 hours of community service to be divided equally between areas targeted by the robocalls — Baltimore City and Prince George's County.
Fletcher-Hill said the sentence needed "to send a message that influence and deceit in elections will not be tolerated. … Even in the most wide-open political campaigns, there are borders that cannot be crossed."
Meanwhile, Schurick's attorneys said the woman who recorded the robocall and had the messages sent to voters had made a similar recording using gay slurs in a District of Columbia election and had been investigated by that city's police. Those allegations, contained in a state prosecutor's memorandum made public in court documents, surfaced after the trial had concluded in December.
The defense motion also says that the woman, Rhonda Russell, was in a relationship with Julius Henson, the political consultant who prosecutors say wrote the Maryland robocall's script, and that computers used for the calls were tampered with before agents with the state prosecutor seized them.
Defense attorneys say all of that adds up to a conspiracy that could mitigate Schurick's role, and that prosecutors should have known about and disclosed it before the trial.
State Prosecutor Emmit C. Davitt said he told defense attorneys two days after he learned about the information. He added, "We don't think [the information] changes anything."
Lawyers for both sides agreed to hold a hearing dealing with the witness at a later date. That allowed sentencing to proceed for Schurick, 55.
Schurick authorized the call that went out to 112,000 Democratic households, telling voters to "relax." It said O'Malley and President Barack Obama, who was not on the ballot, had been successful and there was no need to vote.
Prosecutors say the calls were engineered by campaign consultant Julius Henson, who goes on trial next week on charges similar to those Schurick faced. Prosecutors said Henson dubbed the scheme the "Schurick doctrine" to "promote confusion, emotionalism and frustration" among black voters. The intent, prosecutors said, was to have "African-American voters stay home."
Despite the calls, Gov. Martin O'Malley was re-elected.
Fletcher-Hill said Schurick's insistence that he was a bit player in a scheme beyond his control was "not credible." And he chided the former communications director for Ehrlich for contributing to the public's distrust of politicians.
But at the end of the hearing, Fletcher-Hill turned to Schurick, his family, friends and political supporters, and said he would consider probation before judgment once Schurick had completed a substantial portion of the community service. If granted, that would open the possibility of wiping the conviction off his record.
"You were wrong, but that does not make you a bad person," the judge said. He added, "I condemn the act. I do not condemn you."
Schurick, in his first public comments on the case, said he had "made a decision that destroyed my legacy" and ended a 30-year career in state politics. "I'm out of business."
Speaking in a soft, steady voice, hands in his pockets, Schurick asked to be judged on a lifetime of public service — not on what he called a split-second decision during a roadside cellphone call in the frantic final moments of a lagging campaign.
"Campaigns are not just about ideals, where the best person wins," Schurick said. "To be successful, you need to rely on strategy and tactics. Nothing is more important than getting your supporters to the polls."
But in the end, he said, "It was the consultant's recommendation, but it was my decision. It was wrong. … It was a profound personal failure."
Outside the courtroom, Schurick stuck to his position that his intent was to attract black voters to Ehrlich. "I know what was in my heart," he told reporters.
Prosecutors had recommended home detention and five years' supervised probation, along with 500 hours of community service and a fine not lower than $7,000.
"The sentence is about more than Mr. Schurick," said Deputy State Prosecutor Thomas M. McDonough. "It is also about the legal principle for which Mr. Schurick was prosecuted." He said that public trust has been undermined and a "message must be sent."