Attorney General James Takes Legal Action Against Conspiracy Theorists For Threatening Robocalls to Suppress Black Voters

Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman Orchestrated a Large-Scale Robocall
Campaign to Intimidate Black Communities Ahead of the 2020 Election

Approximately 5,500 New Yorkers Subjected to Discriminatory and Harassing Robocalls

NEW YORK – New York Attorney General Letitia James today filed a request to intervene in a federal proceeding against two notorious conspiracy theorists over their efforts to suppress Black voters ahead of the 2020 election. An investigation conducted by the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) found that Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman, while hiding behind their sham organization “Project 1599,” violated state and federal laws by orchestrating robocalls to threaten and harass Black communities through disinformation, including claims that mail-in voters would have their personal information disseminated to law enforcement, debt collectors, and the government. The Wohl and Burkman robocall campaign, which reached approximately 5,500 New Yorkers, sought to undermine and interfere with the then-ongoing efforts by the state of New York to fairly and safely administer its elections during the COVID-19 crisis and protect its citizens from voter intimidation and harassment. Attorney General James’ action today in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York seeks to cease further voter intimidation by Wohl, Burkman, and their associates.

“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,” said Attorney General James. “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. No voter should ever be subjected to such harassment or intimidation when exercising their fundamental right to vote. I will continue the work to protect voters and ensure that anyone who tries to hinder that right is held accountable to the fullest extent of the law.”

The OAG launched an investigation into Wohl and Burkman after receiving tips from the public that they received automated messages discouraging them from voting by mail. The investigation found that in the summer of 2020, Wohl and Burkman created a robocall recording, falsely claiming that voting by mail would subject the voter to having their personal information used by the police to track old warrants, credit card companies to collect debts, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to track individuals for mandatory vaccines, all of which was false. A text of the automated recording reads:

“Hi, this is Tamika Taylor from Project 1599, the civil rights organization founded by Jack Burman 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 debts? The CDC is even pushing to use records for mail-in voting to track people for mandatory vaccines. Don’t be finessed into giving your private information to the man, stay safe and beware of vote by mail.”

The investigation revealed that Wohl and Burkman clearly and deliberately targeted Black communities in carrying out their widespread robocall campaign. On August 25, 2020, the day before the robocalls were placed, Wohl emailed Burkman the audio file for the call and stated, “[w]e should send it to black neighborhoods…” The next day, after the calls were sent and received by thousands of voters, Burkman emailed to congratulate Wohl, stating that “i love these robo calls…getting angry black call backs…win or lose…the black robo was a great [Jacob Wohl] idea.”

Wohl and Burkman hired Message Communications, Inc., which is owned and operated by Robert Mahanian, to send the robocall message to voters in New York and across the country. On August 26, 2020, Message Communications sent the robocall to over 85,000 phone numbers nationwide, including approximately 5,500 phone numbers with New York area codes, predominately in and around New York City. According to data obtained by the OAG, at least 4,186 calls were sent to numbers with a 212 area code; at least 703 calls were sent to numbers with a 646 area code; at least 198 calls were sent to numbers with a 347 area code; and at least 170 calls were sent to numbers with a 917 area code.

Using her authority to assert and protect the voting rights of all the approximate 5,500 New Yorkers who received Wohl and Burkman’s robocalls, Attorney General James seeks to join an existing action in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, brought by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the law firm of Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, on behalf of a number of voters and the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, against Wohl, Burkman, Project 1599, and Burkman’s lobbying firm J.M. Burkman & Associates. Along with the original defendants, Attorney General James is additionally suing Message Communications and Mahanian.

Attorney General James’ action asserts six violations by the defendants under state and federal laws, including the New York Civil Rights Law, the New York Executive Law, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, and the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

The complaint seeks broad injunctive and other relief, including:

  • Prohibiting Wohl, Burkman, Burkman & Associates, and Project 1599 from further engaging or undertaking in harassing and discriminatory voter intimidation;
  • Requiring Mahanian and Message Communications to establish policies and procedures to prevent unlawful, discriminatory, and intimidating robocalls directed at voters;
  • Forfeiting all profits or payments made to the defendants as part of the robocall campaign; and
  • Requiring defendants to pay a penalty of up to $500 for each violation of the state law prohibiting New Yorkers from being subject to any discrimination in their civil rights.

In a separate case, criminal charges have been brought against Wohl and Burkman for the robocall operation by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. The matter remains ongoing.

This matter is being handled by Assistant Attorneys General Conor Duffy and Colleen K. Faherty, with assistance from Volunteer Assistant Attorney General Hannah Bernard, Special Counsel for Hate Crimes Rick Sawyer, and Legal Support Analyst Jack Jones — all under the supervision of Civil Rights Bureau Chief Jessica Clarke. The Civil Rights Bureau is a part of the Division for Social Justice, which is led by Chief Deputy Attorney General Meghan Faux and under the oversight of First Deputy Attorney General Jennifer Levy.