NEW YORK (AP) – The U.S. Department of Justice has considered a civil lawsuit against two conservative political activists accused of using automated calls to dissuade black voters from voting in the 2020 election.
The department said Friday that the two men’s defense attorneys misinterpreted the Voting Rights Act, although the department stressed that it took no part in the civil suit 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 debt — even by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to match people for mandatory vaccinations pursue.
“Don’t be tempted into giving the man your private information, stay safe and beware of mail votes,” the automated recording said.
Political activist 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 August 2020 calls.
The Justice Department said Friday the plain language of the Voting Rights Act “prohibits threats of non-physical harm, as well as attempts at intimidation, threats or coercion, whether racially motivated or not.”
In a filing in Manhattan federal court, 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 Act by arguing that the law Conduct that did not cover imminent 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 mostly black neighborhoods in New York, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Two years ago, Judge Victor Marrero ordered correction calls to nearly 30,000 recipients, saying the calls were “election terror.”
In a court filing filed Friday, Wohl and Burkman’s attorneys defended the robocalls, saying they were protected by the First Amendment.
They called the content of the automated calls “essentially true” and said there was no evidence other than “speculation and hearsay” that the automated calls affected voting in the 2020 presidential election.
The defense said the calls were not aimed at any particular racial or ethnic group and there was no evidence the men were trying to get or coerce anyone not to vote.
However, the plaintiffs wrote in court filings that Wohl sent the voiceover to Burkman in an email, writing: “Attached is the audio file for the automated 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 protections against self-incrimination.
Christopher Dunn, director of justice for the New York Civil Liberties Union, called the Justice Department’s filing “a welcome sign of the federal government’s commitment to defending voters.”
He added: “With everything that is happening in our country now, it is important 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 her office said made thousands of robocalls.
The settlement will see Message Communications pay $50,000 in compensation to people who received the calls. The company must also send out a voter protection robocall approved by a bipartisan voter rights organization. It will screen prospective customers and election-related robocalls to prevent intimidating messages from being sent.
An email message was left with an attorney representing the company on Friday.
___ Associate Press writer David Porter contributed to this report.