Conservative activists accused in hoax voting robocalls ordered to make new, 'curative' message

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

A federal judge on Wednesday ordered two conservative operatives facing charges in Michigan and elsewhere for organizing thousands of robocalls authorities said were designed to intimidate voters to produce a new, "curative" message correcting the misinformation.

The call must be made by 5 p.m. Thursday, according to the order by U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero of the Southern District of New York.

Authorities have accused Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman of orchestrating recordings that purported to be through an initiative they launched and made claims to discourage voters from mailing in absentee ballots, including warning about personal information added to a database available to law enforcement. 

Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman were arraigned on Oct. 8.

The new message, the judge ruled, has to 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 decision 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.

Following an investigation, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel this month announced felony charges against the pair for allegedly using robocalls to reach urban areas with significant minority populations in a bid to intimidate voters ahead of the Nov. 3 general election.

Nessel’s office alleges Burkman, 54, and Wohl, 22, who do not live in Michigan, orchestrated the scheme to contact nearly 12,000 residents in Metro Detroit and placed approximately 85,000 robocalls nationally.

The caller in the recording 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. However, none of the claims made in the robocall are true.”

In his decision Wednesday, Marrero noted the calls pushed the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation’s Metro Detroit arm to divert “resources allocated toward increasing Census participation to addressing the disinformation.”

The judge also rejected arguments from Burkman and Wohl that their claims were protected under the First Amendment.

“Defendants intentionally reached into the homes of voters and raised the specter of arrest, financial distress, infirmity, and compulsory medical procedures,” he said. “Not only did defendants incite fears of these grim consequences, but they baselessly tied the prospects to mail-in voting. The result cannot be described as anything but deliberate interference with voters’ rights to cast their ballots in any legal manner they choose.”

Reached Wednesday night, Randy Kleinman, an attorney representing the men, said their legal team had no comment on the decision and referred to a letter to the judge.

In it, Kleinman and another attorney, David Schwartz, argue their clients "face an imminent risk of significant constitutional and liberty deprivations as a result of the court's order insofar as it requires them to issue an incriminating statement before the conclusion of the instant matter and before the conclusion of two pending criminal matters."

The robocall order "directly countermands a Michigan State court's order that defendant not issue any robocalls," the lawyers wrote, and the original recordings were "no threat of force or retaliation by Project 1599, but rather an advisory, which ... is neither false nor misleading nor inaccurate; even if it is unsettling to some."

A hearing is scheduled Friday to check if the operatives complied with the order to release a new message.

Nessel welcomed the order. “Voting is a cornerstone of our democracy and all voters should be able to cast their ballot without confusion or fear,” she said in a statement.

The operatives’ case is pending in 36th District Court in Detroit, where a preliminary exam was set for 1 p.m. Thursday. They each are charged with:

  • Election law – intimidating voters, a felony punishable up to five years
  • Conspiracy to commit an election law violation, a felony punishable up to five years
  • Using a computer to commit the crime of election law – intimidating voters, a felony punishable up to seven years
  • Using a computer to commit the crime of conspiracy, a felony punishable up to seven years

Those who received the robocall in August and want to file a complaint are asked to contact the Attorney General’s Office at (517) 335-7650.

Burkman and Wohl also have been indicted in Cleveland. They face a hearing there next month.