NY AG James Wants In On Lawsuit Against Wohl And Burkman Over Racist Robocall

ROCHESTER, NY - SEPTEMBER 20:  New York State Attorney General Letitia James speaks at a news conference about the ongoing investigation into the death of Daniel Prude September 20, 2020 in Rochester, New York. Prude died March 30 after being taken off life support following his arrest by Rochester police.   (Photo by Joshua Rashaad McFadden/Getty Images)
ROCHESTER, NY - SEPTEMBER 20: New York State Attorney General Letitia James speaks at a news conference about the ongoing investigation into the death of Daniel Prude on September 20, 2020 in Rochester, New York. Pr... ROCHESTER, NY - SEPTEMBER 20: New York State Attorney General Letitia James speaks at a news conference about the ongoing investigation into the death of Daniel Prude on September 20, 2020 in Rochester, New York. Prude, who is Black, died March 30 after being taken off life support following his arrest by Rochester police. (Photo by Joshua Rashaad McFadden/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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May 6, 2021 3:19 p.m.

New York’s attorney general wrote to a federal judge on Thursday, asking to be tagged into an ongoing lawsuit against the right-wing hucksters Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman, who allegedly sent robocalls targeting Black voters in an attempt to suppress voter turnout ahead of the 2020 election. 

The lawsuit, filed in October by the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, focuses on a robocall that falsely warned thousands of recipients in several states that voting by-mail could be used against them — specifically, by sharing personal information with law enforcement pursuing old warrants, credit card companies pursuing debtors and public health officials seeking to administer “mandatory vaccines.” 

“Don’t be finessed into giving your private information to the man, stay home safe and beware of vote by mail,” said a voice on the robocall, claiming to be “Tamika Taylor from 1599 Project.” 

The robocall is already at the heart of two criminal cases against the duo — in Michigan, they face felony charges of conspiracy to violate election law, among other offenses. In Ohio, they’ve separately been indicted on eight counts of telecommunications fraud and seven counts of bribery. They’ve pleaded not guilty in both cases. 

New York Attorney General Letitia James, in her request to intervene in the civil suit Thursday, alleged that it specifically targeted Black voters. She cited the pair’s own communications. 

“We should send it to black neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Richmond, Atlanta and Cleveland,” Wohl allegedly wrote to Burkman in an email that included the audio file for the call.

New York Attorney General’s Office

The next day, after the calls were sent to thousands of people, Burkman allegedly emailed Wohl, “i love these robo calls…getting angry black call backs…win or lose…the black robo was just a great jw idea.” 

New York Attorney General’s Office

In late October, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero issued a temporary restraining order barring Wohl or Burkman from sending further such robocalls, and further ordered them to send a corrective call with the following script:

“At the direction of a United States district court, this call is intended to inform you that a federal court has found that the message you previously received regarding mail-in voting from Project 1599 contained false information that has had the effect of intimidating voters, and thus interfering with the upcoming presidential election, in violation of federal voting-rights laws.”

“Wohl and Burkman used misinformation to try to disenfranchise Black communities ahead of the election, in a clear attempt to sway the election in the favor of their preferred presidential candidate,” James said in a statement Thursday.

David M. Schwartz, an attorney for the defendants, told TPM that “This case is nothing more than a furtherance of the cancel culture movement and that only people holding a certain opinion have a right to be heard.” 

“If you listen to the calls, there is nothing threatening about any of the calls,” Schwartz asserted. “We will fight this case in court and we look forward to a trial challenging all of these fictional claims.” 

James’ proposed complaint refers to protecting the civil rights of New Yorkers threatened by voter intimidation.

“In the summer leading up to the 2020 general election, Wohl and Burkman planned, funded, and executed a concerted effort to intimidate and threaten voters through a nationwide Robocall,” the complaint alleges. 

James proposed complaint also targets a telecom provider, Message Communications, Inc., and its owner Robert Mahanian, who Burkman and Wohl allegedly hired to send their robocall across the country. The call, according to the New York attorney general’s office, was sent to 85,000 phone numbers nationally, including 5,500 with New York area codes. 

The company performed no “due diligence” before sending the call to New York, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Illinois, the proposed complaint alleged. “Upon information and belief,” it added later, “Message Communications worked with Wohl and Burkman to target specific zip codes to maximize the threatening effects the robocall would have on Black voters in New York and other large metropolitan areas.” Message Communications did not respond to TPM’s request for comment.

Wohl and Burkman, working through Burkman’s lobbying firm and the purported “Project 1599” organization, “concocted a racist campaign that trafficked in stereotypes and spread lies and deception all for their shared goal of intimidating voters and depressing voter turnout to disrupt a presidential election,” the proposed complaint read.

“In doing so, Wohl and Burkman violated several federal and New York laws.” 

Burkman claimed to TPM in August that “nobody doing robo calls would ever put out their own cell number.”

“[I]’d bet on a [S]oros group trying to embarrass us,” he asserted, without providing any proof. 

Nonetheless, a plaintiff in the civil suit, Nancy Hart, received a call from 703-795-5364 — which belongs to Burkman and popped up as “JACK BURKMAN” on her caller ID, the suit alleged. According to the New York attorney general’s office, Burkman left that same phone number in a voicemail for Mahanian. 

National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, Nancy Hart

Burkman admitted during an October hearing in the civil suit that “Yes, that is our call,” the proposed New York complaint noted. 

The purported voice on the other end of the robocall — “Tamika Taylor” — may have been a reference to the police killing of Breonna Taylor: Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer, was often misidentified in the media as Tamika Taylor. 

Judge Marrero, in his October decision to impose a temporary restraining order, noted “Use of this name in the script of the call is suggestive of an effort to provide an aura of legitimacy to the robocall message.” 

The proposed New York suit seeks permanent injunctions preventing Wohl and Burkman from further engaging in unlawful robocalls directed at voters, among other steps including a financial penalty of $500 for each violation of New York civil rights law committed against New Yorkers who received the robocall.

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