Right-wing operatives agree to pay up to $1.2 million for misleading 2020 robocalls

Far-right operatives Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman have agreed to pay New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office up to $1.2 million for a robocall campaign they put together to suppress the Black vote ahead of the 2020 election.

“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. Now they will pay up to $1.25 million,” James said in a statement Tuesday announcing the agreement, which still needs to be approved by a judge.

James filed suit in 2021 against the pair, who were known for smearing President Donald Trump’s political opponents with transparently false accusations. The suit alleged that Wohl and Burkman were responsible for more than 5,000 robocalls filled with misinformation about voting in New York in August 2020.

The speaker on the call identified herself as “Tamika Taylor of Project 1599” and falsely claimed that voting by mail would result in voters’ having their personal information used by the police to track old warrants and allow credit card companies to collect debts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track people for mandatory vaccinations.

“Don’t be finessed into giving your private information to the man. Stay home safe and beware of vote by mail,” the call said, according to a transcript released by James’ office.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero found Wohl and Burkman liable for having violated state civil rights laws and the federal Ku Klux Klan Act with the calls. The “undisputed evidence in this case establishes that Defendants’ conduct in designing and executing the Robocall was racially motivated; the Robocall sought to deter eligible Black voters from exercising their right to vote, subjecting them to discrimination in their civil rights,” the judge wrote.

Under the terms of the consent decree — worked out with the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, or NCBCP; the AG’s office; plaintiffs who were targeted by the call; and Wohl and Burkman’s attorney — the pair agreed they were responsible for paying $1 million in damages. That amount can be reduced to $393,000 if they make required payments on time, or it can be increased to $1.25 million if they miss payment deadlines.

Their lawyer, David Schwartz, said in a statement, “Our clients are pleased that we have entered into an amicable settlement with the plaintiffs.” He added that they are “pleased to put this case behind them, so they can focus on their families and careers.”

Melanie Campbell, president and chief executive of NCBCP, said the pair “used intimidation and scare tactics, attempting to spread harmful disinformation about voting in an effort to silence Black voices.”

“There will be consequences for their actions. They will pay for the harm they cause to our democracy,” she said.

Damon T. Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the legal organization that represented NCBCP and the individual plaintiffs, said the “groundbreaking settlement should send an emphatic message to anyone who aims to prevent Black people from exercising their right to vote.”

Wohl and Burkman have previously been penalized for the calls, which they used in other states, as well. The Federal Communications Commission hit them with a $5.1 million fine last year, and they pleaded guilty to related charges in Ohio in 2022. They were sentenced to two years of probation and 500 hours of registering voters.

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