New York Attorney General Letitia James took legal action against conservative activist Jacob Wohl on Thursday over thousands of robocalls that a federal judge described last year as “electoral terror” for what he described as a campaign targeting Black voters with false information about mail-in voting during the 2020 election.
If allowed to join, James would draw Wohl’s telecom provider into the fray: Message Communications and its owner Robert Mahanian.
“In this country, our vote is our voice — it is one of the most important parts of our democracy. Any attempt to discourage communities from voting is as illegal as it is un-American,” the Democratic attorney general said in a statement. “Wohl and Burkman used misinformation to try to disenfranchise Black communities ahead of the election, in a clear attempt to sway the election in the favor of their preferred presidential candidate.”
Message Communications did not reply to a request for comment by press time.
James claims that Wohl and others involved in the robocalls dodged a series of subpoenas by her office.
“No voter should ever be subjected to such harassment or intimidation when exercising their fundamental right to vote,” James added.
The move adds to the pile of state authorities pursuing Wohl and his fellow operative Jack Burkman over automated messages with a wide reach. Prosecutors in Ohio and Michigan previously charged Wohl and Burkman criminally over the same calls. Michigan’s Department of State published the audio on its YouTube page last August as an example of “false information being used to suppress voting in Detroit.”
Its transcription reads:
This is Project 1599, a civil rights organization founded by Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl. Mail-in voting sounds great. But did you know that if you vote by mail, your 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 debt? The CDC is even pushing to give preference for mail in voting to track people for mandatory vaccines. Don’t be [unintelligible] into giving your private information to the man. Stay safe, and beware of vote by mail.
In her motion to intervene on Thursday, Attorney General James hopes to be heard in an ongoing civil rights lawsuit that the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation (NCBCP) filed against Wohl and Burkman in the Southern District of New York last October.
In a letter motion filed with Senior U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero, James says her office has a “strong interest” in the litigation because the robocalls were “in violation of the [Voting Rights Act], the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the KKK act, and various New York laws.” James also told the judge that her office has already tried to haul Burkman and Wohl into court, but those efforts have so far proved fruitless.
A lengthy footnote states:
Notably, NYAG sought to investigate these claims under its independent authority provided by the Executive Law; however, defendants Wohl, Burkman, and Burkman Associates have refused to respond to lawful, duly issued subpoenas. NYAG’s investigation revealed substantial information about defendants’ conduct in creating and disseminating the robocall, and while defendants refused to respond to the subpoenas, enforcing compliance would only further delay NYAG’s ability to seek a remedy in the case. Accordingly, intervention would be the most efficient and productive way to enforce the rights of the State of New York.
“Given the scope of relief and the additional claim of persistent fraud and illegality in violation of New York’s Executive Law, the NYAG’s intervention seeks relief otherwise unresolved and unaddressed by plaintiffs in the underlying action,” the motion argues. “Moreover, judicial economy would be best served by granting the NYAG’s motion to intervene. A parallel lawsuit brought by the NYAG concerning many of the same legal and factual issues in this action could lead to overlapping legal rulings or remedial orders.”
James added that New York’s interest in the case exceeds that of the civil rights organization that filed it, touching upon the telecom provider in addition to Burkman and Wohl.
“The NYAG’s enforcement interests are not sufficiently represented by [the NCBCP] in the underlying action because the NYAG seeks relief that is broader in scope than that requested by [the NCBCP],” James argues in the letter motion.
“[The NCBCP has] requested relief as to solely [Burkman’s and Wohl’s] actions stemming from the August 26 Project 1599 call,” the NYAG’s motion continues. “However, [Burkman and Wohl] have demonstrated a predatory scheme using telecom providers to execute their intimidation tactics and so, by contrast, the NYAG seeks broad injunctive, declaratory, and other relief that would additionally address the specific telecom provider.”
James’s proposed complaint would add additional defendants to the case: Message Communications and its owner, Mahanian, whom the motion argues “had an obligation to ensure any robocall campaigns complied with federal regulations.”
The proposed complaint alleges that Burkman, Wohl and Mahanian worked together to plan, create and discharge the “deceptive and intimidating robocall campaign.”
In service of this argument, James cites a series of phone calls, voicemails and emails between the trio that purport to document the placement, purchase, and eventual broadcasting of the robocall.
From the proposed complaint:
45. Wohl emailed Burkman and Mahanian on August 26 at 10:41 am informing them that the WAV file was uploaded successfully and that he updated the calls-per-minute to the maximum.
46. Mahanian confirmed to Wohl and Burkman via Mahanian’s Message Communications email account that “yes, your campaign is currently running and recording, uploaded about 20 minutes ago, is running. I believe you are all set.”
47. Minutes later, Burkman emailed Wohl and Mahanian to congratulate them for the “great job.”
Wohl, described in variegated fashion as a “blundering conservative operative,” a “right-wing provocateur,” a “conspiracy theorist, fraudster, and internet troll,” and as “simply unparalleled in the field of failed smear attempts,” has not denied placing the calls but asserted a First Amendment defense.
“If you listen to the calls, there is nothing threatening about any of the calls,” David Schwartz, an attorney for Burkman and Wohl, told Law&Crime. “We will fight this case in court and we look forward to a trial challenging all of these fictional claims. This case is nothing more than a furtherance of the cancel culture movement and that only people holding a certain opinion have a right to be heard.”
Burkman and his partner were compelled by a federal judge to send curative messages to the recipients.
In sum, James alleges six violations of federal and New York State law that are, in the NYAG’s opinion, not fully vindicated by those prior admissions.
“[I]t is clear that the NYAG’s claims of voter intimidation ‘share with the main action a common question of law and fact,’ which renders permissive intervention appropriate under the circumstances in this matter,” the motion argues.
That decision rests with the New York court.
[image via screen capture from NBC News/YouTube]
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