NEW YORK (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department has weighed in on a civil lawsuit against two conservative political operatives accused of using robocalls to dissuade Black voters from taking part in the 2020 election.
The department said Friday that defense lawyers for the two men were misinterpreting the Voting Rights Act, although the department emphasized that it was not taking sides in the civil litigation and is not a party to the suit.
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 finessed into giving your private information to the man, stay safe and beware of vote 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 individuals who received the calls in August 2020.
The Justice Department said Friday the plain language of the Voting Rights Act “prohibits threats of non-physical harm, as well as attempts to intimidate, threaten, or coerce, whether they were racially motivated or not.”
In a federal court filing in Manhattan, Washington-based attorneys in the department’s Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney Damian Williams in New York said the Wohl and Burkman's defense misrepresented the scope of the Voting Rights Act in arguing the law doesn’t cover conduct that threatens economic or legal consequences that are unlikely to occur, conduct that does not target minority voters, or conduct that does not successfully dissuade voters from voting.
In all, 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 corrective calls to go out to nearly 30,000 recipients, saying the calls amounted to “electoral terror.”
In a court filing Friday, lawyers for Wohl and Burkman defended the robocalls, saying they are protected by the First Amendment.
They called the content of the robocalls “substantially true” and said there was no evidence aside from “speculation and hearsay” to indicate that the robocalls influenced voting in the 2020 presidential election.
They defense said the calls didn't target specific races or ethnicities, and there was no evidence the men sought to induce or compel anyone not to vote.
However, the plaintiffs wrote in court papers that Wohl sent Burkman the voiceover in an email and wrote, “Attached is the audio file for the robo call. We should send it to black neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Richmond, Atlanta, and Cleveland.”
The defendants have both invoked their 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 defending voters.”
He added: “With all that is happening in our country now, it’s essential that voters be protected from intimidation and threats.”
Meanwhile, New York Attorney General Leticia James's office announced Friday a settlement with a company her office said made thousands of the robocalls.
The settlement calls for Message Communications to pay $50,000 in restitution to people who received the calls. The company must also send out a voter protection robocall approved by a nonpartisan voter rights organization. It will screen future customers and election-related robocalls in order to prevent intimidating messages from being sent.
An email message was left Friday with an attorney representing the company.
___ Associated Press writer David Porter contributed to this report.
Larry Neumeister, The Associated Press