An Ohio judge on Tuesday ordered two right-wing conspiracy theorists who targeted Black voters with robocalls spreading disinformation in 2020 to spend 500 hours registering voters in low-income neighborhoods in the Washington, D.C., area.
The ruling comes after Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman pleaded guilty to a single felony count of telecommunications fraud after they sent out thousands of robocalls during the 2020 presidential election, promoting conspiracy theories about mail-in voting.
In addition to the 500-hour community service, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge John Sutula fined each men $2,500 and placed them on two years of probation, ordering them to wear GPS ankle monitors with home confinement starting at 8 p.m. each day for the first six months of their probation. The voter registration requirement must be fulfilled by June 2024.
Burkman, 56, of Arlington, Va., and Wohl, 24, of Irvine, Calif., were indicted in October 2020 on eight counts of telecommunications fraud and seven counts of bribery. The men were accused of using a voice broadcast service to make about 85,000 robocalls to predominantly Black neighborhoods in Ohio, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois.
In 2021, New York Attorney General Letitia James — who formed a bipartisan coalition with 50 other attorneys general and 12 phone companies to fight illegal robocalls across the country — published the purported script of the calls.
“Hi, this is Tamika Taylor from Project 1599, the civil rights organization founded by Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl,” the script allegedly read. “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.”
James also filed a separate voter intimidation lawsuit against the two men in federal court in New York City after the robocalls reached over 5,000 New Yorkers. They face a $5.1 million fine levied by the Federal Communications Commission.
Prosecutors said the men were responsible for about 3,500 calls to residents of Cleveland, a predominantly Black city. The robocalls came at a time when many states were expanding mail-in voting for the 2020 presidential election as a protective measure, due to COVID.
Wohl and Burkman are also appealing criminal charges filed against them in Detroit from another alleged robocall scheme targeting Black voters. Yahoo News contacted attorneys for both men for comment.
Burkman's attorney in the Michigan case, Scott Grabel, called Sutula’s sentence “unusual” but told Yahoo News that his client plans to fulfill his duty.
“It’s a historic pattern that unfortunately works,” Jamal Watkins, senior vice president of strategy and advancement at the NAACP, told Yahoo News. “It scares folks from voting, it keeps folks home from voting, and it really suppresses the vote.”
According to Cleveland.com, Sutala, 71, in a Zoom hearing on Tuesday said that most of the civil rights advances in the United States have occurred in his lifetime and compared the two men’s efforts to those who used violence to suppress Black voters in the 1960s.
The NAACP — which had been tracking the potential impact that Wohl and Burkman could have had on the 2020 election — doubled down on Sutala’s remarks, recalling the scare tactics of the era before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that were used against Black voters on local and state levels to prevent them from exercising their right to vote. Watkins says the defendants engaged in a modern version of these types of tactics by spreading “misinformation and disinformation.”
“When we think about the history of voter suppression in this country really targeted towards African American men and women, we know that it has [happened through] specific tactics. In Mississippi, one of the first states to put forth the grandfather clause — which says you can't be registered to vote unless your grandfather was eligible to vote — it cut the number of eligible black voters down from I think 90% down to 6%. But you also think about all of the other tactics such as poll taxes, literacy tests, or English language requirements, really being designed deliberately to disenfranchise African Americans, immigrants, low income populations.”
Wohl addressed the court to express his “absolute regret and shame over all of this.” Burkman said he wanted to “echo” that sentiment. Along with the robocalls, the men have been tied to a number of other political stunts aimed at spreading disinformation in 2020, according to the Washington Post.
Watkins said he hopes that their required punishment to register voters in low-income neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. – where a significant amount of Black people reside – will be “transformative.”
“I do think that these types of sentences [are] about making sure that folks have to interact with the people they’re potentially or have directly harmed,” Watkins said. “Now, that’s not to say it’s going to change the hearts and minds of these two individuals, but it does put them squarely in the communities that they have impacted.”
A key question looms over how the enforcement of the ruling and the tabulation of the completed hours of community service will be quantified. The Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court told Yahoo News they were waiting on Sutula’s journal entry that could detail how the men’s sentence will be enforced.
“Ideally, you would have these individuals be assigned to work with a community-based organization that does this type of community engagement,” Watkins said. “Because part of this, I would hope, is that they are being connected to the humanity of our community. And whether you’re racist, whether you’re xenophobic, whether you’re homophobic, when you have to spend time with living, breathing human beings and see the humanity of people, I think that is what is transformative.”