Justice Department intervenes in 2020 election robocalls prosecution

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NEW YORK — The US Justice Department has weighed in on a civil lawsuit against two conservative political operatives accused of using robocalls to dissuade black voters from participating in the 2020 election.

The department said on Friday that defense attorneys for the two men misinterpreted the suffrage law, although the department stressed that it was not taking sides in the civil litigation and was not a party to the lawsuit. .

The robocalls falsely told voters that if they voted by mail, their information would be used by law enforcement to track old warrants and by credit card companies to collect debts — even by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track people for mandatory vaccinations.

“Don’t be thin giving your private information to the man, stay safe and beware of voting by mail,” the automated recording said.

Political operatives Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman, a lobbyist, were sued in 2020 by a nonpartisan civil rights organization, the National Coalition on Black Civil Participation, and several people who received the calls in August 2020.

The Justice Department said Friday that the plain language of the Voting Rights Act “prohibits threats of non-physical harm, as well as attempts to intimidate, threaten or coerce, whether motivated by race or not”.

In a filing in federal court in Manhattan, Washington-based attorneys for the department’s civil rights division and U.S. attorney Damian Williams in New York said Wohl and Burkman’s defense misrepresented the scope of the voting rights law by asserting that the law did not cover conduct that threatens unlikely economic or legal consequences, conduct that does not target minority voters, or conduct that fails to deter voters from vote.

In total, nearly 85,000 robocalls were sent to residents of predominantly black neighborhoods in New York, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Two years ago, Judge Victor Marrero ordered the sending of corrective appeals to nearly 30,000 recipients, saying the appeals amounted to “election terror”.

In a Friday court filing, attorneys for Wohl and Burkman defended the robocalls, saying they were protected by the First Amendment.

They called the content of the robocalls ‘substantially true’ and said there was no evidence apart from ‘speculation and hearsay’ to indicate the robocalls influenced voting in the election. 2020 presidential.

The defense said the calls did not target specific races or ethnicities, and there was no evidence the men were seeking to induce or coerce anyone not to vote.

However, the plaintiffs wrote in court documents that Wohl sent Burkman the voiceover in an email and wrote, “Attached is the audio file of the robocall. We should send him to black neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Richmond, Atlanta and Cleveland.

The defendants both invoked the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.

Christopher Dunn, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, called the Justice Department filing a “welcome sign that the federal government is committed to standing up for voters.”

He added: “With everything going on in our country right now, it’s critical that voters are protected from intimidation and threats.”

Meanwhile, the office of New York Attorney General Leticia James on Friday announced a settlement with a company that her office says made thousands of robocalls.

The settlement asks Message Communications to pay $50,000 in restitution to those who received the calls. The company must also send a voter protection robocall approved by a nonpartisan voter advocacy organization. It will screen future customers and election-related robocalls to prevent intimidating messages from being sent.

An email was left with an attorney representing the company on Friday.

___ Associated Press writer David Porter contributed to this report.

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