New York Attorney Letitia James wants two right-wing provocateurs to pay up to $2.7 million in penalties for thousands of robocalls allegedly aimed at suppressing the Black vote ahead of the 2020 election.
James said Jacob Wohl and Jack 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."
Wohl and Burkman, conservative political operatives known for smearing political opponents with transparently false accusations, are already facing criminal charges in Michigan and Ohio for the scheme. The pair are accused of trying to influence 85,000 voters in urban areas across the country with the August 2020 robocalls, which were loaded with misinformation about mail-in voting.
The speaker on the call identified herself "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, credit card companies to collect debts, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to track individuals for mandatory vaccines," James' office said.
"Don’t be finessed into giving your private information to the man. Stay home safe and beware of vote by mail,” the call concluded — which would appear to tell people not to vote at all.
Wohl and Burkman have acknowledged in court that they were responsible for the calls, but deny that they did anything illegal. The pair insist the call was an exercise of free speech rights and not designed to intimidate, threaten or suppress voting.
James' office said the two men knew what they were doing and who they were targeting.
"On August 25, 2020, the day before the robocalls were placed, Wohl emailed Burkman the audio file for the call and stated, '[w]e should send it to black neighborhoods…' The next day, after the calls were sent and received by thousands of voters, Burkman emailed to congratulate Wohl, stating that “i love these robo calls…getting angry black call backs…win or lose…the black robo was a great jw [Jacob Wohl] idea,” her office said.
James is also seeking to join a Manhattan federal court civil lawsuit filed against Wohl and Burkman last year by the Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights Under the Law. Her filing accuses the pair of violating numerous state and federal laws, and seeks a court order barring them from further "discriminatory voter intimidation" as well as up to $500 in financial penalties for each of the 5,500 calls in New York state.
Wohl and Burkman have pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges, and are appealing an earlier order in the Manhattan case denying their request that the suit be dismissed. Their lawyers are also seeking to have the civil case stayed until after the criminal cases have concluded.
One of Wohl and Burkman's attorneys in the civil case, Randy Kleinman, told NBC News that James' action is part of "an absolute witch hunt" and "clearly a politically motivated thing."
He said none of the plaintiffs had suffered any damages from the robocalls. "This whole thing is ridiculous," Kleinman said.
Burkman, 54, and Wohl, 23, are notorious for several failed schemes that tried to paint opponents of then-President Donald Trump as rapists, criminals or deviants.
Their schemes have targeted then-Democratic presidential candidates Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren, as well as former special counsel Robert Mueller, with elaborate conspiracy theories that quickly fell apart under examination.
Wohl has been banned from most social networks for operating fake accounts.