(Bloomberg) -- Two pro-Trump activists who orchestrated a campaign to discourage voting in large cities face a record $5.13 million fine under a tougher law governing robocalls, the Federal Communications Commission said Tuesday.
Jacob Wohl, John Burkman and J.M. Burkman & Associates LLC made more than 1,100 prerecorded robocalls to wireless numbers in August and September before the 2020 presidential election, according to the FCC. The messages warned recipients that if they voted by mail, their personal information would be part of a public database used by police to track down old criminal warrants and by credit card companies to collect outstanding debts.
Wohl and Burkman, two far-right operatives known for political stunts like trying to smear Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, with false allegations of sexual misconduct. They also face criminal charges in Ohio and Michigan and civil accusations in New York, accusing them of trying to suppress Black voter turnout in the 2020 election with tens of thousands of robocalls.
The calls were made to wireless phones in New York, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Ohio, the agency said. The FCC case doesn't include calls made to landline phones.
"With all of the problems in the world right now, I'm amazed the FCC is proposing this fine over political speech," said William Amadeo, who represents Wohl in the Michigan case. "It's kind of sad they are not focusing on real problems."
Wohl, contacted by Bloomberg Law, declined to comment on behalf of himself, Burkman, and the company, citing pending litigation.
The proposed FCC fine would be the largest under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act and the first to use a new provision that allows the agency to start counting violations even before issuing warnings to the robocaller.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said that, while the fine "properly reflects the seriousness of the allegations," her office will continue to pursue criminal charges including conspiracy to commit election law violations and intimidation of voters.
"Across the board, the FCC is stepping up its efforts to combat illegal robocalls," Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.
The agency received complaints from consumers and the non-profit group Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and was able to identify dialing service providers through the Ohio Attorney General's Office.
"None of the consumers that the bureau contacted stated that they consented to the calls," the commission said in the notice of liability.
Information gathered from the Ohio attorney general also produced emails between the services and the two men, "including choosing which zip codes to target and 'the tape we want to go out,"' the FCC said. Burkman and Wohl also have admitted in court proceedings that they were involved in the creation and distribution of the robocalls, the agency said.
The men will get a chance to respond to the FCC's allegations before the commission votes on how to act.
(Updates with statement from Michigan attorney general, in seventh paragraph.)
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