NEW YORK – Election robocall fraudsters violated the Voting Rights Act and Ku Klux Klan Act with their intimidating robocalls targeting Black voters, a judge ruled today. The ruling recognized that the Defendants had violated the Voting Rights Act, KKK Act, and other federal and state civil rights laws in what they called their “black robo”—a racially-targeted voter suppression operation.
Using a recorded script that falsely suggested law enforcement, credit card companies, and the CDC would use mail-in voting data to track people down for arrest, debt collection, and involuntary vaccination, Defendants Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman broadcasted approximately 85,000 calls across five states. These robocalls told voters to “beware of vote by mail” and instilled fear, stress, and anxiety among voters. They also forced civil rights organizations to reallocate critical resources to counter the robocalls just weeks before the election.
“As attacks on Black voting power get increasingly creative and insidious, we must remain vigilant in our defense of democracy,” said Damon Hewitt, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee. “We applaud the court’s recognition that these robocalls were an illegal and discriminatory voter suppression tactic that targeted Black voters. But we also know that the threats of intimidation to Black voters–in-person, on the internet, and through the airwaves–still remain. There is still critical work to be done in order to protect and expand the right to vote for Black people and all Americans.”
The Lawyers’ Committee and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP filed the suit in October 2020 on behalf of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and individual voters who received the robocalls. The New York Office of the Attorney General joined on behalf of the People of New York as co-plaintiffs in 2021.
U.S. District Court Judge Victor Marrero’s ruling granted a motion for summary judgment filed last summer by The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and co-counsel on behalf of the Plaintiffs. In his ruling, Judge Marrero said Defendants’ actions embodied “an attempt to disturb the election process itself” and concluded Defendants’ conduct was “intimidating, threatening, or coercive towards voters, especially Black voters.”
“We are very happy to see justice done in this case and on behalf of our clients. The Court’s ruling should stand as a strong deterrent against voter intimidation schemes,” said Franklin Monsour of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP.
“The court recognized that these men engaged in a conspiracy to silence Black voters during the 2020 general election. The landmark decision vindicates the rights of voters, putting those who seek to suppress votes on notice that their intimidation, racism, and disinformation will not be tolerated.” said Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP filed a lawsuit against Jacob Wohl and Jack Burman, who made the robocalls, arguing that they violated the Voting Rights Act, Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, Civil Rights Act of 1957, and New York state civil rights laws. Judge Marrero granted Plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order, and stated in his ruling at the time that the Defendants were trying to provoke the same type of fear the Ku Klux Klan sought to produce. In 2021, The People of New York joined as co-plaintiffs after Attorney General Letitia James filed a motion to intervene.
Defendants Wohl and Burkman pled guilty in October 2022 to telecommunications fraud charges in an Ohio criminal case stemming from their robocall operation. Their sentence included two years of probation and an order to spend 500 hours registering people to vote. Additional criminal charges against Defendants are still pending in Michigan.
Plaintiffs settled claims against the company used by Defendants Wohl and Burkman to make the robocalls, Message Communications, and its owner Robert Mahanian in June 2022. Message Communications and Mahanian agreed to pay $50,000 in fines to the New York Office of Attorney General, to be distributed to recipients of the robocall in that state.
In August 2021, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed a $5 million fine—the largest ever under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act—against Defendants after the Lawyers’ Committee notified the FCC in September 2020.
Find out more about the case here.
About the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law – The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of voting rights, criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and hate crimes. For more information, please visit https://www.lawyerscommittee.org/