Baltimore Circuit Judge Emanuel Brown ruled Thursday that veteran political consultant Julius Henson violated probation by running for an East Baltimore state Senate seat and sentenced him to four months in jail. But Brown suspended the sentence pending an appeal — and his decision effectively allows Henson to keep running in the meantime.
Henson promptly told reporters he intends to do that.
"I will continue to run," Henson told reporters outside the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse downtown. "We want to go and work in the 45th District and bring about positive change there."
Henson, 64, was serving three years of probation after being convicted of an election law violation in connection with a robocall during the 2010 governor's race. He served one month in jail. As part of the sentence, Brown ordered that Henson "not work in any political campaign paid/volunteer during probation."
Nevertheless, Henson launched his own campaign, vowing to "retire" Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, whom he's challenging in the June 24 Democratic primary. Henson contended that the judge's order applied to work as a political consultant, not his own campaign.
Brown's ruling Thursday, which allows Henson to run for office pending appeal, creates the potential for an unusual scenario: If Henson were to win election but lose the appeal, he'd face a four-month jail sentence.
University of Maryland law professor Larry Gibson said he knows of no law that would force Henson from office while he served jail time. But Gibson said he considers the question academic because he expects Henson to lose the primary.
"The chances of him winning are close to zero," said Gibson, a longtime observer of city politics.
In court Thursday, Henson's attorney, Russell A. Neverdon Sr., argued that the terms of Henson's probation should apply only to work as a political consultant. He said his client's case is different from that of elected officials who were prohibited from running after being convicted in office, such as then-Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon and Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold. Henson has never been an elected official, Neverdon noted.
Henson took the stand to defend his position.
"I'm a candidate," he said. "Candidates do not volunteer. Candidates do not get paid."
But State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt said a transcript of the sentencing hearing showed that the judge had barred Henson from working "in any capacity" on a campaign, which would include his own. Brown agreed with that interpretation.
"How do you violate the laws of the state in a political campaign, get convicted, placed on probation, told not to engage in a political campaign in any capacity and take that and say, 'Well, I'll elevate myself and run for office?"' Brown asked.
The judge said Henson showed disregard for his order and deserved to serve jail time for it. "He had a more cavalier approach to being on probation than is healthy," Brown said.
But as part of his ruling, Brown ended Henson's three-year probation, noting that the candidate had completed 300 hours of community service. Ending the probation ended any prohibition from running for office, both sides agree.
Henson was convicted in May 2012 of conspiracy to violate election laws by not including an authority line on the robocall, made as part of Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign to return to office. Ehrlich lost the election to the incumbent, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Prosecutors contended the calls were intended to keep black voters from the polls.
The call targeted Democratic voters in Baltimore and Prince George's County and said they could "relax," suggesting that O'Malley had won. In fact, no one knew the results because the polls were still open.
Gibson said the nature of Henson's offense would prevent him from winning an election in Baltimore. "Julius Henson committed what is probably an unpardonable sin to African-American voters in Baltimore. He would have a better chance of winning if he had been convicted of bank robbery."
Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler brought a civil case against Henson, and a federal judge ordered Henson to pay $1 million in fines.
Ehrlich's campaign manager, Paul Schurick, was convicted of four charges related to election fraud. He was sentenced to 30 days of home detention and 500 hours of community service but no jail time.
Davitt said Brown's order for more jail time showed how seriously he took the case. He noted that an appellate court would not necessarily hear Henson's appeal.
"This court made extremely clear that this was a very serious crime," he said. "The court also indicated that Mr. Henson didn't think it was a serious crime and felt he had to send a message."
Neverdon, a candidate for Baltimore state's attorney, said afterward that he believed his side had a stronger argument and predicted that appellate judges would agree. He has 30 days to file an appeal.
"We do believe that we're going to be successful," Neverdon said.