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Robocalls claiming voters would get “mandatory vaccines” result in $5M fine

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Getty Images | adamkaz

The Federal Communications Commission issued a $5.1 million fine against pro-Trump robocallers who targeted Black people with calls promoting a conspiracy theory that the government would use mail-in voting records “to track people for mandatory vaccines.” The calls also falsely claimed that mail-in voting would be used by police to “track down old warrants” and by credit card companies to collect outstanding debts.

The FCC voted 4–0 to issue the fine against John Burkman (aka Jack Burkman), Jacob Wohl, and J.M. Burkman & Associates LLC for making illegal robocalls to wireless phones, the commission announced yesterday. Burkman and Wohl have faced multiple lawsuits and pleaded guilty in one criminal case. If they do not pay the $5,134,500 penalty, the FCC will refer it to the Department of Justice for collection.

The FCC fine is for 1,141 calls made to wireless numbers without the recipients’ express prior consent. But the robocalls were sent to over 85,000 people overall, according to a ruling in a court case described later in this article.

“The recorded messages identified Burkman and Wohl by name and claimed to be made by ‘Project-1599,'” the FCC said.

Calls violated US robocall law

The FCC said the parties violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and noted that “the content of the calls is not relevant to our determination under the TCPA and the Commission’s rules.” The FCC proposed the fine in August 2021, starting a process that gave Burkman and Wohl a chance to dispute the allegations and penalty.

“In response to the Commission’s 2021 proposed fine, Burkman and Wohl argued that the dialing companies they hired to make the calls were responsible for any alleged violations,” the FCC said. “Yet, their own emails show Burkman and Wohl directing the dialing companies on specific details of the calling campaigns such as which ZIP Codes to call, pricing, and other matters related to the robocalling campaign.”

Burkman and Wohl also argued that political robocalls are exempt from the TCPA. But as the FCC said, “the mere fact that a calling campaign is political in nature does not protect the caller from liability under Commission rules.”

The FCC noted that “Burkman and Wohl each pleaded guilty to one count of telecommunications fraud for making robocalls in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, for which they were sentenced to 24 months of supervision, required to pay a $2,500 fine, and were ordered to work 500 hours of community service.” The ordered community service consisted of registering voters in minority and low-income communities, the FCC said.

“We commend our law enforcement partners for bringing Burkman and Wohl to justice for their actions, and we will continue our efforts to make it clear that there are significant consequences for engaging in this type of conduct,” FCC Enforcement Chief Loyaan Egal said.

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