Advance Notice: Briefs

BREAKING: FCC proposes $5M fine for Wohl, Burkman over Michigan election robocall

By: - August 24, 2021 6:08 pm

Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl | DM photo via Flickr Public Domain

Updated, 7:56 p.m. 8/24/21, with comments from AG Nessel

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday proposed a $5.13 million fine against Jack Burkman, Jacob Wohl and J.M. Burkman & Associates LLC over a robocall targeting Black Michigan voters before the 2020 election.

Burkman and Wohl allegedly concocted and paid for a robocall that targeted and tried to dissuade Detroit’s Black residents from participating in the Nov. 3 general election, according to Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who has filed multiple felony charges against the pair. Burkman and Wohl are awaiting trial in Wayne County Circuit Court.

Attorney General Dana Nessel | Susan J. Demas

“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. While my office will continue to pursue the criminal case against these men, I applaud the FCC for its action today,” Nessel said in a statement on Tuesday night.

Wohl and Burkman allegedly made 1,141 unlawful robocalls to wireless phones without prior express consent in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. This is the largest TCPA robocall fine ever proposed by the FCC.

The robocalls were made on Aug. 26 and Sept. 14, 2020.

The calls received by Detroiters claimed personal information of residents who vote by mail will become part of an unspecified “public database,” as the Advance previously reported. They falsely claimed this would allow law enforcement officials to track down old warrants and credit card companies to collect outstanding debts.

They also claimed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will use personal information to track people for mandatory vaccines — an unfounded notion that has picked up steam in COVID-19 vaccine conspiracy theory circles. The calls ended by telling voters to “beware” of voting by mail.

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau investigation found that the calls in this case were apparently prerecorded and made to consumers’ wireless phones without the required prior consent. Subject to narrow exceptions, the TCPA prohibits making prerecorded voice calls to wireless phones without the consent of those receiving the calls – regardless of the content of the calls.

The Enforcement Bureau worked with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to identify two dialing service providers that provided subpoena responses confirming the robocall campaigns and identifying the clients who had hired them for this service. The bureau used the subpoenaed call records and recordings of the calls to determine that the calls apparently went to wireless phones and the message was prerecorded. The consumers who agreed to speak with the bureau about the calls confirmed they had not provided prior consent to the callers.

The subpoenas also produced email exchanges between the dialing service vendors and Wohl and Burkman about the call campaigns – including choosing which ZIP codes to target 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. Wohl and Burkman also both admitted under oath to their involvement in the creation and distribution of the robocalls. Burkman stated in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, “That is our call, yes, yes” with confirmation from Wohl.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.