Far-right hoaxsters Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman violated federal and state civil rights law with a plot using robocalls to suppress the Black vote during the 2020 election, a New York judge ruled Wednesday.
Wohl and Burkman targeted about 85,000 voters across Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Ohio with robocalls that summer falsely claiming that voting by mail would risk handing their private information to the police, debt collectors and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Hi, this is Tamika Taylor from Project 1599,” the message said. “Don’t be finessed into giving your private information to the man, stay safe and beware of vote by mail.”
New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit against the duo in May 2021 after her office found that they may have violated state and federal law. Wohl and Burkman also faced criminal charges in Michigan and Ohio. They pleaded guilty to telecommunications fraud in Ohio in October.
In his 111-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero lambasted the operatives for attempting to “deter Black voters by exploiting fears and stereotypes.”
Despite Wohl and Burkman claiming that the victims of the scheme were “not intimidated or harmed in any way,” the judge affirmed that the full record shows they were “frightened, enraged, and distressed upon received the call,” with some plaintiffs “reliving their past traumas” after the call.
“That the Robocall induced these feelings of fright, rage, and distress confirms that the Individual Plaintiffs were in fact intimidated and threatened by the message,” the judge wrote.
Marrero wrote that Wohl and Burkman violated a bevy of federal statutes with their scheme: the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Ku Klux Klan Act, and several New York civil rights laws. The next phase of the case will allow the plaintiffs, including the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, to propose damages and other penalties.
The New York AG applauded the ruling through a statement on Wednesday. “Your vote is your voice, and I am proud that today the court ruled in our favor to uphold the most important cornerstone of our democracy,” she wrote.
Wohl and Burkman have already been sentenced in Ohio: Back in December, they were each sentenced to two years of probation, six months of monitoring with a GPS ankle bracelet, $2,500 a piece in fines, and 500 hours of registering voters in Washington, D.C. The pair are challenging charges in Michigan and the Federal Communications Commission has proposed a $5 million fine.
Read the full ruling below:
Correction: Due to an editing error, the original version of this post incorrectly suggested that New York had brought criminal charges against the duo. The New York case is a civil lawsuit, not a criminal case.