FCC proposes $5M fine for election robocalls from conservative activists

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Conservative activists facing felony charges in Michigan for alleged robocalls discouraging mail-in voting last year now face a more than $5 million fine from the Federal Communications Commission related to the calls. 

The $5,134,500 proposed fine against John Burkman, Jacob Wohl and J.M. Burkman and Associates, LLC constitutes the largest robocall fine ever proposed under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, according to a statement from the FCC.

The FCC fine is related to 1,141 unlawful robocalls to wireless phones between Aug. 26 and Sept. 14, according to the agency. The messages told people that voting by absentee ballot would ensure "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." 

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

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel charged Burkman and Wohl with election law and conspiracy crimes after they allegedly targeted urban areas, including Detroit, in late August with the same recorded message in phone calls that reached nearly 11,000 residents. 

Nessel’s office said at the time that authorities in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois reported similar robocalls being made to residents in their states who live in urban areas with significant minority populations.

The next hearing for Wohl and Burkman is scheduled for Sept. 21.

Wohl denied involvement when contacted by The Detroit News in late August and said he and Burkman, while "not fans of mail-in voting," were "puzzled" by the call. 

Burkman's attorney called Nessel's charges a "political stunt" last year.

On Tuesday, Nessel praised the proposed FCC fine against Burkman and Wohl.

“This massive fine properly reflects the seriousness of the allegations these two political operatives face. Mr. Burkman and Mr. Wohl allegedly orchestrated a series of robocalls aimed at suppressing the vote in the November general election," the attorney general said.

The FCC did not detail Tuesday where the calls at issue were alleged to have occurred. 

But the agency said in its statement that subpoenas led to email exchanges between Wohl and Burkman and the dialing service vendors believed to have made the robocalls. The emails discussed the call campaigns, targeted zip codes and "the tape we want to go out."

"The calls themselves identified Wohl and Burkman by name and used Burkman’s wireless phone number as the caller ID," the FCC statement said. "Wohl and Burkman also both admitted under oath to their involvement in the creation and distribution of the robocalls."