Conservative operatives ordered to pay $1.25 million for robocalls targeting Black voters

BY Preta Peace Namasaba April 18, 2024 3:49 PM EDT
Letitia James. Photo credit: Office of the New York State Attorney General

Two conservative operatives who launched a robocall campaign to prevent Black voters from voting by mail in the 2020 U.S. election have been ordered to pay up to $1.25 million in a settlement. According to the agreement, they must pay a $1 million judgment to the New York attorney general’s office, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, and the individuals who were harmed by their scheme. Failure to follow the payment schedule will increase the amount to $1.25 million.

“The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, and it belongs to everyone. We will not allow anyone to threaten that right. 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 to my office, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, and the individuals who were harmed by their scheme. My office will always defend the right to vote,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement.

Wohl and Burkman, who have a history of concocting conspiracy theories to try to smear Democrats operated under a fake organization called Project 1599 to reach approximately 5,500 Black New Yorkers. Targeted voters received automated calls claiming that mail-in voting would allow them to be tracked for outstanding warrants, credit card debt, and mandatory vaccines. A filing in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York states that the robocall also was distributed in Cleveland, Ohio; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Chicago, the Pennsylvania cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia; Detroit; and Arlington, Virginia.

Consequently, the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation (NCBCP), a plaintiff in the lawsuit was forced to redirect considerable resources to address the false claims made in the call. The civil rights organization alongside the people who received the calls and the state attorney general sued Wohl and Burkman in New York in 2020. The duo was found liable for targeting Black voters and sending false and threatening messages intended to discourage voting by a federal judge in New York in March 2023.

The case was led by New York Attorney General Letitia James, the first African American and first woman to be elected to the position. In her first term, she secured more than $7.5 billion for New York from those who broke state laws and took advantage of New Yorkers, including more than $2.5 billion from opioid manufacturers and distributors for their roles in the opioid epidemic.  The present settlement is intended to send a resounding message to parties who want to prevent Black Americans from voting.

“These men engaged in a conspiracy to suppress Black votes in the 2020 general election. They used intimidation and scare tactics, attempting to spread harmful disinformation about voting in an effort to silence Black voices. Their conduct cannot and will not be tolerated. This settlement serves as a marker for those who seek to engage in such efforts. There will be consequences for their actions. They will pay for the harm they cause to our democracy,” said Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of NCBCP.

In October 2022, Burkman and Wohl pleaded guilty to telecommunications fraud in Ohio where they were sentenced to two years of probation, each fined $2,500 and ordered to do 500 hours of community service. They were further fined $5.1 million in June 2023 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Burkman, a Washington lawyer has also been stripped of his law license by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.