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Instigators of Racially Targeted Robocalls Need To Be Held Accountable

Category Policy Brief # 172 | By: Rodney A. Maggay | September 9, 2021

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Policy Summary

On August 24, 2021 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed a $5,134,500 fine against John M. Burkman, Jacob A. Wohl and J.M. Burkman and Associates, LLC. Mr. Burkman and Mr. Wohl are political consultants based in Virginia. And J.M. Burkman and Associates, LLC is a political lobbying firm registered in Virginia.

In September 2020 prerecorded voice calls were sent out and were traced to Mr. Burkman and Mr. Wohl. 1,141 calls were placed to wireless phone numbers in Ohio. Other robocalls were made in other states such as Michigan and New York. None of the callers contacted by the FCC during their investigation had provided consent to receive the prerecorded calls. The messages stated that if voters voted by mail that their personal information would be collected in a database and used by the police department to track down old warrants and used by companies to track down outstanding debts such as old credit card debts. The calls were targeted at minority communities in large urban cities.

Under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and FCC regulations prerecorded voice calls to wireless telephone numbers without subscribers prior express consent is prohibited unless a call is made for an emergency purpose. LEARN MORE

Policy Analysis

The proposed fine by the FCC against Mr. Burkman and Mr. Wohl is the largest fine ever put forth by the Commission. While the investigation conducted by the Commission and the subpoenaed records clearly establish that both men were responsible for the robocalls the report issued by the FCC omits a very important aspect of the incident.

Mr. Burkman and Mr. Wohl are noted right – wing activists who have a long history of disturbing incidents against Democrats and other public figures who have disagreed with former President Donald Trump. In recent years the two have tried to promote made up scandals against current Vice – President Kamala Harris, Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Dr. Anthony Fauci in order to smear them. The robocall incident perpetrated by the two men were targeted at minority communities in an attempt to try and deter the citizens who received those calls from voting by mail and by extension from voting at all. But the report issued by the FCC does not mention the racist motives that prompted the two men to initiate the robocalls.

Photo taken from: Cleveland.com

Instead, the FCC’s report of their investigation based their findings on the overwhelming evidence that Mr. Burkman and Mr. Wohl were responsible. Records show that the calls included Mr. Burkman’s name and phone number as a contact number. And records and e-mails showed that Mr. Burkman and Mr. Wohl financed the calls with credit cards in their name. Mr. Burkman and Mr. Wohl finally admitted to the Commission about their scheme. While the investigation as applied to the Telephone Consumer Protection Act was within the contours of that law the bigger question is how to address the racial motivations of the incident. 

The two men clearly have a history of targeting Democratic leaning voters and minority communities. The TCPA protects consumers who have not provided written consent and is also used in situations that are not political.

What is needed to combat these robocall based voter intimidation tactics would be an enhancement penalty. The TCPA is properly equipped to handle mass robocalls of any content. But a special penalty should be made available if the robocalls in question are politically based and intended to intimidate a class of voters from voting as in the Burkman and Wohl case. 

Currently, there is no legal provision that supports an enhanced penalty. But with the rise of polarization in politics and the use of technology like cell phones and social media an enhancement penalty based on political intimidation would help stem the kind of abuses that Mr. Burkman and Mr. Wohl have been doing for years. LEARN MORELEARN MORELEARN MORE

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – infopage on how to combat robocalls and spoofing.

Do Not Call Registry – website to register your phone number against unwanted telemarketing calls.

This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact Rod@USResistnews.org.

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