BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Opening arguments began on Tuesday in the election fraud trial of a former Republican gubernatorial aide accused of directing fraudulent robocalls to suppress black voter turnout during last year's vote.
Paul Schurick, 55, the campaign manager for former Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich, was accused of authorizing robocalls late on Election Day in 2010 that told more than 100,000 voters, mostly black Democrats, not to go to polls.
The message assured the listener that Ehrlich's Democratic opponent, incumbent Martin O'Malley, as well as President Barack Obama, who was not up for election that day, were already "successful."
"Our goals have been met," said the message delivered in a woman's voice starting at about 6 p.m. on Election Day.
"The polls are correct and we took it back. We're OK. Relax. Everything's fine. The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight," the message said.
Missing from the message was a mandatory line indicating which candidate approved the calls, a failure prosecutors said was meant to further confuse and defraud voters.
An employee of Julius Henson, a political consultant hired by the Ehrlich campaign who is expected to go on trial in February, was accused of making the recording.
Schurick, Ehrlich's communications director while he was governor from 2003 to 2007, is charged with two counts of conspiracy and one count each of election fraud and obstruction of justice.
Prosecutors cited e-mails and text messages between Schurick and Henson before and during Election Day indicating the Ehrlich campaign was trying to prevent black Democratic voters - who were spurning Ehrlich - from voting for O'Malley.
The plan originated in July 2010, when Henson presented top Ehrlich staff with "The Schurick Doctrine," "designed to promote confusion, emotionalism and frustration among African American Democrats," said Emmet Davitt, Maryland's state prosecutor assigned to the case.
Davitt said Schurick admitted to the FBI that he authorized the call. But Schurick's defense said he hurriedly approved the calls on a busy Election Day, and that his intent was for Henson to influence black Democrats to vote for Ehrlich using "reverse psychology."
By telling voters O'Malley had already won, the Ehrlich supporters among them would be motivated to head to the polls, defense attorneys argued.
"He's the campaign manager," Schurick's attorney, A. Dwight Pettit, told the jury. "He's supposed to check poll numbers, he's supposed to check statistics, he's supposed to check voting blocs."
Pettit argued that the robocalls were an isolated reaction to polling numbers, not a long-planned conspiracy. The call only went out to Democrats because call lists from previous Democratic campaigns were more readily available, Pettit said.
Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Cynthia Johnston