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Operatives must pay up to $1.25 million for robocall scheme to suppress Black votes

Two right-wing political operatives must pay up to $1.25 million in fines after they were found liable for launching a robocall campaign designed to keep Black New Yorkers from voting in the 2020 election, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced Tuesday.

Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman, who have a history of concocting conspiracy theories to try to smear Democrats, were found liable last March of orchestrating a robocall campaign that reached about 5,500 predominantly Black New Yorkers in the summer of 2020. Targeted voters received automated calls — purportedly from a “civil rights organization” founded by Wohl and Burkman called “Project 1599” — that sought to dissuade them from mail-in voting.

The messages included false warnings that mail-in voting would cause their personal information to be given to police departments and credit card companies.

“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?” one such robocall message stated, according to a transcript provided by the attorney general’s office. “The CDC is even pushing to use records for mail-in voting to track people for mandatory vaccines.”

The message concluded: “Don’t be finessed into giving your private information to the man, stay safe and beware of vote by mail.”

Under a settlement agreement, Wohl and Burkman must pay a $1 million judgment to the New York attorney general’s office, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and the individual plaintiffs who were harmed by their scheme. All three groups together filed a lawsuit against Wohl and Burkman in 2021.

“These men engaged in a conspiracy to suppress Black votes in the 2020 general election,” Melanie Campbell, president of the NCBCP, said in a statement. “They used intimidation and scare tactics, attempting to spread harmful disinformation about voting in an effort to silence Black voices. Their conduct cannot and will not be tolerated.”

The group said it was forced to use “considerable resources” to address the false claims in the robocall. According to James’s office, one New York voter who received the threatening robocall suffered “severe anxiety and distress,” and ultimately withdrew his voter registration.

If Wohl and Burkman fail to pay at least $105,000 by Dec. 31 and do not address the failure to pay within 30 days, the amount will increase to $1.25 million, the attorney general’s office said.

“Our clients are pleased that we have entered into an amicable settlement with the plaintiffs,” David Schwartz, an attorney for Wohl and Burkman, said in an email. “The settlement is still pending the court’s approval and our clients are pleased to put this case behind them, so they can focus on their families and careers.”

In August 2022, James’s office announced a separate settlement with the robocalling platform that sent out Wohl and Burkman’s illegal robocall.

“The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, and it belongs to everyone. We will not allow anyone to threaten that right,” James said in a statement Tuesday. “Wohl and Burkman orchestrated a depraved and disinformation-ridden campaign to intimidate Black voters in an attempt to sway the election in favor of their preferred candidate. … My office will always defend the right to vote.”

Wohl and Burkman have also been charged in other states for launching similar robocall schemes targeting Black voters in 2020. In 2022, an Ohio judge ordered the pair to each pay a $2,500 fine and to work 500 hours registering voters in Washington. Wohl and Burkman have also been charged with felonies in Michigan for targeting predominantly Black voters in Detroit with the same robocalls.

“This robocall is an egregious example of voter suppression, targeting Black voters with flat-out lies meant to intimidate them from going to the polls and expressing their voice in our democracy,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in November.

Wohl and Burkman were behind past failed attempts to smear special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) with false claims. Wohl has also in the past spread a false claim that Vice President Harris was not eligible for the presidency because of her parents’ immigration status.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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