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FCC fines 2 lobbyists $5 million for election-related robocalls

Two Virginia lobbyists accused of trying to inhibit Black voters during the 2020 presidential election have been fined $5 million by federal regulators for illegally sending robocalls.

An investigation by the Federal Communications Commission found that Jack Burkman and Jacob Wohl paid a separate company to place more than 1,100 recorded robocalls in August and September of last year. The two admitted to arranging the calls, which the FCC said violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. 

Prosecutors in Michigan, New York and Ohio indicted Burkman and Wohl last year for allegedly seeking to intimidate Black voters in Cleveland, Detroit and New York City. 

"The recorded messages told potential voters that if they voted by mail, their 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 FCC said Tuesday in a statement.

The FCC's enforcement bureau must approve the proposed $5.1 million fine after first allowing Burkman and Wohl the opportunity to respond. The pair are now facing the largest fine ever issued under the Telephone act.

Burkman and Wohl did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Consumer complaints spur federal probe

Burkman and Wohl, consultants who work for J.M. Burkman & Associates in Arlington, offer robocalling and other political services through their company under the name "Project 1599," the FCC said. Cellphone users began complaining about robocalls from Burkman & Associates last September, prompting federal regulators to investigate. 

In Ohio, Cuyahoga County authorities said Burkman and Wohl sent pre-recorded messages that falsely warned people that by voting by mail their information would show up in databases for law enforcement, collection agencies and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Burkman and Wohl were charged with eight counts of telecommunications fraud and seven counts of bribery. The case is still pending. 

The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation sued J.M. Burkman & Associates last year for the robocalling activity, alleging that Burkman and Wohl were purposely trying to spread disinformation to voters nationwide. A U.S. District Court judge agreed and ordered the men to resend a robocall that told callers that the previous robocall "contained false information that has had the effect of intimidating voters."

The rising volume of robocalls has become a nationwide issue in recent years, as scammers use the method to bilk billions of dollars from Americans

The makers of call-blocking app YouMail said Americans received about 4.2 billion robocalls in July — putting the number back at pre-pandemic levels. Consumers are on pace to receive roughly 52 million robocalls this year, up from 40 billion in 2018, YouMail said.

As robocalls rise, Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said the commission will put more pressure on wireless carriers to prevent unwanted calls. Companies like T-Mobile and Verizon play a major role in lowering robocalls, she said earlier this summer.

"What that means is, when a call is being made, a carrier can tell that it really is the person who they say they are on the line," Rosenworcel said.

Khristopher J. Brooks

Khristopher J. Brooks is a reporter for CBS MoneyWatch covering business, consumer and financial stories that range from economic inequality and housing issues to bankruptcies and the business of sports.

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