New York Attorney General Letitia James announced a settlement with robocalling platform Message Communications, Inc. (Message Communications) for its involvement in sending out an illegal robocall designed by conspiracy theorists Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman to prevent Black New Yorkers from voting by mail ahead of the 2020 election. Message Communications and its president Robert Mahanian had been co-defendants in an ongoing voter intimidation lawsuit that Attorney General James filed against Jacob Wohl, Jack Burkman, and related entities in May 2021 for threatening Black voters.
“Voting is our most basic democratic right, and we will not allow anyone to threaten that right for any group of people in this country,” said Attorney General James. “This scheme to intimidate and discourage Black voters in an attempt to sway an election is reprehensible. While states across the country may continue to threaten our democracy, I will always stand up in defense of New Yorkers’ fundamental right to vote.”
An investigation by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) found that Wohl and Burkman, while hiding behind their sham organization “Project 1599,” violated state and federal laws by orchestrating robocalls to threaten and harass Black communities. Wohl and Burkman hired Message Communications to send the robocall message to voters in New York and across the country. The harassing and discriminatory calls reached nearly 5,500 New Yorkers and included claims that mail-in voters would have their personal information disseminated to law enforcement, debt collectors, and the government in an attempt to dissuade individuals from voting. Message Communications and Mahanian have agreed to adopt new policies and procedures which will prevent the company from broadcasting future voter intimidation and election interference tactics.
The OAG launched an investigation into Wohl and Burkman after receiving tips from people reporting that they received automated messages discouraging them from voting by mail. The investigation found that in the summer of 2020, Wohl and Burkman created and disseminated a robocall recording, falsely claiming that voting by mail would subject the voter to 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, all of which was false. The following is a transcript of the automated recording:
“Hi, this is Tamika Taylor from Project 1599, the civil rights organization founded by Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl. Mail-in voting sounds great, but did you know that if you vote by mail, your personal information will be part of a public database that will be used by police departments to track down old warrants and be used by credit card companies to collect outstanding debts? The CDC is even pushing to use records for mail-in voting to track people for mandatory vaccines. Don’t be finessed into giving your private information to the man, stay safe and beware of vote by mail.”
Wohl and Burkman hired Message Communications to send the robocall message to voters in New York and across the country. On August 26, 2020, Message Communications sent the robocall to over 85,000 phone numbers nationwide, including approximately 5,500 phone numbers with New York area codes, predominately in and around New York City. According to data obtained by OAG, at least 4,186 calls were sent to numbers with a 212 area code; at least 703 calls were sent to numbers with a 646 area code; at least 198 calls were sent to numbers with a 347 area code; and at least 170 calls were sent to numbers with a 917 area code. The OAG found that Wohl and Burkman clearly and deliberately targeted Black communities in carrying out their widespread robocall campaign.
As part of the agreement, Message Communications will send out a voter protection robocall that will be placed by an approved non-partisan voting rights organization. The company will also refrain from knowingly transmitting any robocalls that would intimidate or deter voters from voting by any method in any election and will adopt a policy to prohibit Message Communications’ customers from using its services to violate any election laws, civil rights statutes, or consumer protection and anti-fraud laws. Finally, the company will screen customers and all election-related robocalls before they are placed in order to prevent intimidating messages from being sent.
Additionally, Message Communications will pay $50,000 in restitution for the damage caused to New Yorkers through the voter intimidation plot. These funds will be distributed by OAG to New Yorkers who were subjected to the robocalls. New Yorkers who believe they received the call should contact OAG at [email protected] to begin the restitution process.
The OAG’s case against defendants Jacob Wohl, Jack Burkman, Burkman’s lobbying firm, JM Burkman & Associates, and Project 1599 remains ongoing. The OAG is litigating this case alongside co-plaintiffs comprised of voters who received the robocall and the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, all of whom are being represented by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP.
This matter is being handled by the Civil Rights Bureau by Special Counsel for Hate Crimes Rick Sawyer, Assistant Attorneys General Conor Duffy and Colleen Kelly Faherty, and Legal Analyst Miriam Li. The Civil Rights Bureau is a part of the Division for Social Justice, which is led by Chief Deputy Attorney General Meghan Faux and overseen by First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.
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