Two conservative operatives were charged Thursday in connection with false robocalls that aimed to dissuade Black residents in Detroit and other Democratic-leaning U.S. cities from voting by mail, Michigan's attorney general announced.
Jacob Wohl, 22, and Jack Burkman, 54, each face four felony counts in Detroit, including conspiring to intimidate voters in violation of election law and using a computer to commit crimes, Attorney General Dana Nessel said.
The calls falsely warned residents in majority-Black Detroit and cities in at least four other states that if they vote by mail in the Nov. 3 election they could be subjected to arrest, debt collection and forced vaccination, Nessel said.
The men, who have a history of staging hoaxes and spreading lies about prominent Democrats and government officials, are not in custody, and no date for their arraignments has been set.
Nessel said her office would work with local law enforcement to secure their appearances, saying they could face arrest and extradition or could voluntarily travel to Michigan to face the charges.
The charges carry the potential for years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines. The computer charges carry up to seven years apiece, while election law violations could bring up to five.
Nessel’s office warned the public about the calls and launched an investigation in August after thousands of Detroit residents received them.
Wohl and Burkman both denied involvement at the time. Burkman didn't reply to a Thursday voicemail seeking comment and Wohl didn't reply to an email.
Nessel said the investigation found that Burkman and Wohl created and funded the robocalls to deter voters of color from participating in the November election.
“We’re all well aware of the frustrations caused by the millions of nuisance robocalls flooding our cellphones and landlines each day, but this particular message poses grave consequences for our democracy and the principles upon which it was built,” Nessel said. “Michigan voters are entitled to a full, free and fair election in November, and my office will not hesitate to pursue those who jeopardize that.”
The pair was behind 85,000 calls nationwide, including nearly 12,000 in Detroit's 313 area code, Nessel said. Similar calls also blanketed urban pockets of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and New York, she said. She encouraged anyone who received such a call to file a complaint with her office.
Wohl and Burkman have a history of supporting President Donald Trump and attacking his opponents.
Trump narrowly won the key battleground state of Michigan in 2016 in part due to a drop in turnout for Hillary Clinton in heavily Democratic Detroit. In Michigan, voters can cast an absentee ballot for any reason.
The robocalls sought to discourage voting by mail, which voters are expected to do in record numbers this election cycle to avoid crowded polling places during the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans are limiting mail-in voting in several states and Trump has warned, without evidence, that it will lead to fraud. The president also encouraged his supporters during Tuesday's debate to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” on Election Day.
A woman on the robocalls said she was part of Project 1559, a group founded by Wohl and Burkman. The calls falsely claimed that voting by mail would result in personal information going into databases that will be used by police to resolve old warrants, credit card companies to collect debts and federal officials to track mandatory vaccines.
“Don’t be finessed into giving your private information to the man,” the caller said. “Beware of vote by mail.”
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, like Nessel a Democrat, in August called the robocalls “an unconscionable, indefensible, blatant attempt to lie to citizens about their right to vote.”
She praised Nessel for the swift investigation, saying the charges show the state will “use every tool at our disposal to dispel false rhetoric" and protect voting rights.
Wohl lives in Los Angeles, and investigators served search warrants in California as part of the inquiry last week, Nessel said.
Wohl and Burkman have made a name for themselves by orchestrating political dirty tricks and hoaxes, including spreading false claims of sexual misconduct by Robert Mueller and former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.
The pair came under scrutiny in Michigan last year, when a college student said they recruited him to pretend he was raped by Buttigieg, then published the smear without the student’s permission.
Last month, the Washington Post said it was duped into falsely reporting that FBI agents had conducted a raid at Burkman’s home in Arlington, Virginia, when it was actually a staged event featuring actors.
In August, Wohl told The Associated Press that they suspected “leftist pranksters” were behind the robocalls because the caller ID was Burkman’s cellphone number. Burkman called the situation “a joke,” saying nobody would use their own number for a robocall and threatening to sue Benson for defamation.
Associated Press writer David Eggert contributed to this story from Lansing, Michigan.
This story has been corrected to reflect that Nessel said nearly 12,000 residents in the 313 area code, not ZIP code, received the calls in Detroit.