By Jason Tomassini
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - A jury found a former Republican governor's aide guilty of election fraud on Tuesday over an automated phone message he authorized on Election Day last year that prosecutors said aimed at suppressing black voter turnout.
Paul Schurick, 55, the campaign manager for former Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich, was convicted of two counts of conspiracy to violate election laws and two counts of election fraud.
He faces up to 12 years in prison and will be sentenced in February. He did not react when the jury read his verdict.
At around 6 p.m. on November 2, 2010, automated phone calls were made to more than 100,000 Democratic voters in Baltimore City and Prince George's County, where the majority of Maryland's African American population lives.
The message assured listeners 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. "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 jury ruled the calls knowingly failed to include a mandatory line indicating which candidate approved them and willfully attempted to alter voters' decision on whether or not to vote.
"Suppression of the vote is a very big problem," Niomi Rosenberg, one of the jurors, said after the trial. "Our country is founded on the right to vote."
Schurick declined comment after the trial.
A. Dwight Pettit, one of Shurick's defense attorneys, said he would appeal the decision and file a motion for a retrial.
Schurick, who admitted to approving the calls and the script, had testified that the message was meant to be "counterintuitive". The defense said the intent was not to suppress O'Malley supporters, but to anger Democrats sympathetic to Ehrlich so that they would go vote for him.
Julius Henson, a political consultant hired by the Ehrlich campaign to develop a strategy for African American voters, wrote the call's script. Henson will stand trial for election fraud in February.
State prosecutors called that explanation "ridiculous".
"Schurick came to the realization, 'We're not going to win this election without changing our tactics,'" deputy state prosecutor Thomas McDonough said in his closing arguments.
Defense attorney Pettit argued that the robocalls were a "political faux pas," initiated by Henson to "make some quick money" and authorized by Schurick as a last-ditch effort to win more votes.
Pettit portrayed prosecutors' case as the result of a Democratic administration looking to tear down Republicans.
In his 25-year political career, Schurick has held top positions in both Democratic and Republican administrations.
(Editing by Lauren Keiper and Cynthia Johnston)