New York Attorney General Letitia James announced a settlement with robocalling platform Message Communications Inc. for its role in an illegal robocalling scheme — designed by conspiracy theorists Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman — to prevent Black New Yorkers from voting by mail in the 2020 election.
Message Communications and its president Robert Mahanian were named co-defendants in a voter intimidation lawsuit filed in May 2021 by Attorney General James against Wohl, Burkman, and related entities for threatening Black voters.
“Voting is our most basic democratic right, and we will not allow anyone to threaten that right for any group of people in this country,” said Attorney General James. “This scheme to intimidate and discourage Black voters in an attempt to sway an election is reprehensible. While states across the country may continue to threaten our democracy, I will always stand up in defense of New Yorkers’ fundamental right to vote.”
The $50,000 settlement, or Consent Decree, announced on August 12, prohibits Message Communications from “knowingly transmitting any robocalls that would intimidate or deter voters from voting by any method in any election.” The Decree also states that Message Defendants must adopt a written policy prohibiting their customers from engaging in voter suppression behavior – providing a copy to potential customers who must agree to the company’s terms.
After receiving tips from concerned voters who received automated messages discouraging them from voting by mail, the New York Office of the Attorney General launched an investigation into Wohl, Burkman, and their scam company “Project 1599” – which found the duo “violated state and federal laws by orchestrating robocalls to threaten and harass Black communities.”
Over 5,500 New Yorkers were contacted via Message Communications during the Summer of 2020.
Preying on fears traditionally held by the African-American community — and an inherent mistrust of the government — the automated recordings made false claims that “voting by mail would subject the voter to having their personal information used by the police to track old warrants, credit card companies to collect debts, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to track individuals for mandatory vaccines.”
A transcript of the recording:
“Hi, this is Tamika Taylor from Project 1599, the civil rights organization founded by Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl. Mail-in voting sounds great, but did you know that if you vote by mail, your personal information will be part of a public database that will be used by police departments to track down old warrants and be used by credit card companies to collect outstanding debts? The CDC is even pushing to use records for mail-in voting to track people for mandatory vaccines. Don’t be finessed into giving your private information to the man, stay safe and beware of vote by mail.”
The Attorney General’s case against Jacob Wohl, Jack Burkman, JM Burkman & Associates, and Project 1599 is ongoing.
New York isn’t the first state to investigate voter suppression activity by Wohl and Burkman. In October 2020, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel filed felony charges against the men for “allegedly orchestrating a series of robocalls aimed at suppressing the vote in the November general election.”
Nearly 12,000 Michigan residents in predominantly Black areas were contacted by the voter-suppression robocalls.
54-year-old Burkman and 22-year-old Wohl were each charged with one count of election law violation for intimidating voters, a five-year felony; one count of conspiracy to commit an election law violation, a five-year felony; one count of using a computer to commit the election law crime of intimidating voters, a seven-year felony; and using a computer to commit the crime of conspiracy, a seven-year felony.
“Any effort to interfere with, intimidate or intentionally mislead Michigan voters will be met with swift and severe consequences,” Nessel said. “This effort specifically targeted minority voters in an attempt to deter them from voting in the November election.
Michigan Secretary of State Joceyln Benson said in a press release, “I have zero tolerance for anyone who would seek to deceive citizens about their right to vote,” adding:
“I am grateful to the Attorney General for her swift and thorough investigation, putting anyone else who would seek to undermine citizens’ fundamental rights on notice that we will use every tool at our disposal to dispel false rhetoric and seek justice on behalf of every voter who is targeted and harmed by any attempt to suppress their vote.”
The robocalls were similar to those sent in New York, with automated messages falsely telling voters their information would become a part of a tracking database used by law enforcement.
In August of 2021, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed a $5.1 million fine against Burkman and Wohl – the largest ever involving violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), according to the FCC.
Michigan Attorney General Nessel applauded the FCC for taking action saying, “This massive fine properly reflects the seriousness of the allegations these two political operatives face.”
New York Attorney General Letitia James intervened in the settlement with Message Defendants on behalf of the plaintiff, National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, and others. The stipulations include not only $50,000 in restitution but this penalty:
“[Message Defendants] shall offer credits totaling 200,000 minutes billed in one minute increments to a non-partisan voter protection organization of Private Plaintiffs’ choice to send out a non-partisan voter protection robocall. The call shall inform recipients of their rights to vote or promote voter registration and the exercise of the franchise.”
The credits don’t expire.
The separate litigation against Jacob Wohl, Jack Burkman, J.W. Burkman & Associates, and Project 1599, is being handled by the Civil Rights Bureau by Special Counsel for Hate Crime attorney Rick Sawyer, Assistant Attorneys General Conor Duffy, Colleen Kelly Faherty, and Legal Analyst Miriam Li.
The Civil Rights Bureau is part of the Division for Social Justice.
Attorney General James’ action asserts six violations by the defendants under state and federal laws, including the New York Civil Rights Law, the New York Executive Law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, and the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
Follow Ty Ross on Twitter @cooltxchick