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2 conservative activists to be tried in Detroit over robocalls

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Just five days before Tuesday's election, a Detroit judge ordered two conservative activists to stand trial on charges of engaging in a wide-ranging plot to intimidate African American voters in Detroit and other Midwest and East Coast cities through threatening robocall messages.

Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman were arraigned in 36th District Court.

Prosecutors presented emails outlining what they said were efforts to suppress the Black vote and "hijack" the election during the hearing, presided over by Judge Kenneth King of 36th District Court.

Defendants Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman, both white, are accused of orchestrating a campaign of recordings with claims aimed at discouraging  Black voters from mailing in absentee ballots. The recordings included false warnings that voters' personal information was being added to a database made available to law enforcement.

In one of the emails presented in court, a state investigator identified Wohl and Burkman as the individuals who wrote the emails and  made reference to the robocalls.

 "I love these robo calls ... getting angry black call backs (sic)  ...win or lose...the black robo was a great idea jw idea," the two individuals identified as Wohl and Burkman  wrote in the emails.

The emails displayed Thursday showed the robocalls targeted African American voters in Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis and New York City. 

 Burkman, 54, and Wohl, 22, who appeared for the hearing via Zoom, are accused by the Michigan attorney general of orchestrating a scheme to contact nearly 12,000 residents in Metro Detroit and approximately 85,000 people around the country through the robocalls.

The pair are charged with multiple felonies, including voter intimidation and conspiracy to commit an election law violation, both of which carry five-year prison terms. Wohl and Burkman, the founder of a political organization called 1599, also were charged in Ohio this week on a similar complaint in Cleveland, according to published reports. 

In ordering the pair to trial, King said the case centered around intent.

"What matters here is intent and their intent was to present false and misleading calls," the judge said. "That's exactly what we have here."

The caller in the recorded robocalls warned that mail-in voting would “allow personal information to become part of a special database used by police to track down old warrants and by credit card companies to collect outstanding debts,” state officials said. “The caller also deceptively claims the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will use the information to track people for mandatory vaccines."

Retired Detroit firefighter Derrick Thomas said he received a call in August. A recording of the call was played in court Thursday.

In the call, a woman who identifies herself as Tomika Taylor said voting would lead to information could be given to "the man," police, credit card companies and the Centers for Disease Control for mandatory vaccination.

"I felt appalled," Thomas testified via Zoom. "I believe it was malicious."

Thomas said he did not feel threatened by the call but had a "strong desire" to report it because he believed others in Metro Detroit were probably receiving such calls as well.

Thomas said he was undeterred and voted by absentee ballot, as he usually does.

 Under questioning by Wohl's attorney, William Amadeo,Thomas said he had placed himself on a "do not call" list but still got the call.

When asked by Burkman's attorney, Scott Grabel, if he felt physically threatened from voting as a result of the call Thomas said he felt the intent of the robocall "seemed to be to not vote by mail."

Grabel told Thomas, "As you indicated, this did not deter you from voting."

Both Grabel and Amadeo said the case is a matter of "free speech."

"The call has actually motivated voters to vote," said Amadeo. 

Grabel said "to suggest (the case) rises to a level of criminality is absurd."

Thursday's hearing included testimony from investigator Jeff Campbell, a special agent with the Michigan Attorney General's office, who said he traced the robocalls back to a Los Angeles-based company doing business with Wohl and Burkman.

Under cross-examination, Wohl's attorney asked Campbell if he talked to a constitutional expert to see the calls are protected by the First Amendment. Campbell said he thought the purpose of the robocalls was to deter voters from casting absentee ballots.

On Wednesday, a federal judge in New York ordered Wohl and Burkman to produce a new, "curative" message correcting the misinformation.

The deadline to make the call was 5 p.m. Thursday, according to the order by U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero of the Southern District of New York.

Reached by phone about 5:15 p.m., Wohl declined to say whether he and Burkman had met the court's deadline.

Amadeo said Thursday he planned to appeal and that to offer "curative" robocalls would be akin to admitting guilt.

In a letter Thursday to Marrero, two attorneys for the pair said there were "several logistical constraints preventing Defendants' from being able to fully comply with these Orders by the Court's 5:00 p.m. deadline."

Attorneys David M Schwartz and Randy E. Kleinman wrote that Wohl and Burkman would be tied up Thursday afternoon in 36th District Court and also that following the federal judge's order would violate a directive from an Ohio court barring the pair from issuing any robocalls.

The attorneys also wrote that issuing the corrective call could effectively violate the defendants' Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and to receive a trial by an impartial jury.

In response, Marrero on Thursday evening set a hearing for 10 a.m. Friday "to review the status of Defendants’ compliance" with his order and "show cause why they should not be held in contempt of court for any noncompliance the Court finds." 

In his order, the federal judge had said the new message must state: “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, a political organization founded by Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl, 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.”

The judge also granted a temporary restraining order requested by the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, which brought the case on behalf of voters in multiple states that Burkman and Wohl allegedly targeted in recent months.

Wohl and Burkman are due in Wayne County Circuit Court at 9 a.m. Nov. 12 for an arraignment on information.

Mark Hicks contributed.