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Conservative hoaxers to pay up to $1.25M under agreement with New York over 2020 robocall scheme

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Two conservative political operatives who orchestrated a robocall campaign to dissuade Black people from voting in the 2020 election have agreed to pay up to $1.25 million under a settlement with New York state, Attorney General Letitia James said Tuesday.

The operatives, Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman, were accused of making robocalls to phone numbers in predominately Black neighborhoods in Ohio, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois that told people they could be subjected to arrest, debt collection and forced vaccination if they voted by mail.

“Don’t be finessed into giving your private information to the man, stay safe and beware of vote by mail,” the automated recording told potential voters in the leadup to the election.

Wohl and Burkman pleaded guilty to felony telecommunications fraud in Ohio in 2022. The pair were sued in New York in 2020 by a civil rights organization, The National Coalition on Black Civil Participation, along with people who received the calls and the state attorney general.

An attorney for Wohl and Burkman did not immediately return a voicemail seeking comment.

Prosecutors have said the robocalls went out to about 85,000 people across the U.S., including around 5,500 phone numbers with New York area codes, as officials were coordinating unprecedented mail voting campaigns because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the New York lawsuit, attorneys for Wohl and Burkman had argued the calls were protected by the First Amendment and said the effort didn’t target specific ethnicities. The defense also said there was no evidence Wohl or Burkman were trying to discourage people from voting.

The consent decree orders Wohl and Burkman to pay $1 million to the plaintiffs, with the sum increasing to $1.25 million if the pair does not hand over at least $105,000 by the end of the year. The agreement does allow Wohl and Burkman to reduce their total payment to about $400,000 if they meet a series of payment deadlines over the next several years.

“The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, and it belongs to everyone. We will not allow anyone to threaten that right,” James, a Democrat, said in a statement announcing the settlement. “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.”

The settlement also requires Wohl and Burkman to notify the attorney general’s office before any lobbying or political campaigning in New York, and they will have to submit a copy of any future election-related, mass communication efforts to the plaintiff for review 30 days before the messaging reaches the public.

The men have previously staged hoaxes and spread false accusations against Democrats and other government officials.

The Associated Press reported in 2019 that the pair recruited a college student to falsely claim he was raped by then-Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. Wohl denied the accusation and Burkman said he thought the student’s initial account of the alleged assault was true.

Anthony Izaguirre, The Associated Press

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