Virginia lobbyists accused of misleading black voters have been fined $5 million
- December 2, 2022
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Two Virginia lobbyists accused of attempting to inhibit black voters during the 2020 presidential election have been fined $5 million by federal authorities for illegally broadcasting robocalls.
A Federal Communications Commission investigation found that in August and September of last year, Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl paid a separate company to make more than 1,100 recorded automated calls. The two admitted arranging the calls, which the FCC said violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.
Prosecutors in Michigan, New York and Ohio charged Burkman and Wohl last year with allegedly trying to intimidate black voters in Cleveland, Detroit and New York City.
“The recorded messages told potential voters that if they vote by mail, their personal information will be part of a public database used by police departments to track down old warrants and used by credit card companies to collect outstanding debts,” the FCC said in a statement on Tuesday.
The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau must approve the proposed $5.1 million fine after giving Burkman and Wohl an opportunity to comment. The couple now face the largest fine ever imposed under the Telephone Act.
Burkman and Wohl did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Consumer complaints spur federal investigations
Burkman and Wohl, consultants working for JM Burkman & Associates in Arlington, provide robocalling and other political services through their firm called Project 1599, the FCC said. Cellphone users began complaining about Burkman & Associates robocalls last September, prompting federal regulators to investigate.
In Ohio, Cuyahoga County officials said Burkman and Wohl sent out pre-recorded messages falsely warning people that if voted through the mail, their information would be stored in databases for law enforcement agencies, collection agencies and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would show up.
Burkman and Wohl were charged with eight counts of telecommunications fraud and seven counts of bribery. The case is still pending.
Deadline for Telcos to Implement Robocall Blocking Technology 04:55
The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation sued JM Burkman & Associates last year for robocalling activity, alleging that Burkman and Wohl intentionally attempted to spread disinformation to voters nationwide. A U.S. District Court judge agreed, ordering the men to rebroadcast a robocall telling callers that the previous robocall “contained false information that led to voter intimidation.”
The rising volume of robocalls has become a nationwide problem in recent years as scammers use the method to extort billions of dollars from Americans.
Makers of call blocking app YouMail said Americans received about 4.2 billion robocalls in July – bringing the number back to pre-pandemic levels. Consumers are on track to receive around 52 million robocalls this year, up from 40 billion in 2018, YouMail said.
As automated calls increase, FCC acting chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the commission will put more pressure on wireless carriers to prevent unwanted calls. Companies like T-Mobile and Verizon play important roles in reducing robocalls, she said earlier this summer.
“That means when a call is placed, a carrier can verify that it’s really who they say it is on the line,” Rosenworcel said.
Christopher J Brooks