Alleged Robocaller Faces $5 Million Fine for Calls to Voters

A pair of right-wing Washington lobbyists allegedly called prospective voters and warned them against voting by mail.

James R. Hood
James R. Hood

A couple of highly-placed K Street lobbyists with a roster of right-wing clients are facing a $5 million fine for allegedly making more than 1,000 robocalls to wireless phones, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The alleged perpetrators are John M. Burkman and Jacob Alexander Wohl. Burkman is the head of J.M. Burkman & Associates LLC, one of the many "strategic communications" and lobbying firms in Washington.

"Leveraging decades of experience in media, we deliver high impact messaging outcomes for clients across a vast array of industries," the firm boasts on its website. In this case, the "high impact messaging" consisted of calls to 1,141 wireless phones without prior consent of the call recipients.

If true, that's a violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, or TCPA. The $5,134,500 fine would be the largest ever proposed by the FCC under the TCPA. It's also the first time the commission has not had to warn the robocallers in advance, thanks to a recent Congressional TCPA amendment.  

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Calls warned against voting by mail

The robocalls in this case, made on August 26 and September 14, 2020, used messages telling potential voters that, if they vote 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.

The Commission began its investigation following consumer complaints and concerns raised by a non-profit organization.

The calls themselves identified Wohl and Burkman by name and used Burkman’s wireless phone number as the caller ID. Wohl and Burkman also both admitted under oath to their involvement in the creation and distribution of the robocalls, with Burkman stating in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, “That is our call, yes, yes” with confirmation from Wohl, the commission said.

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Caution: Lobbyists at work

Burkman's firm is basically a gun-for-hire operation available to represent just about any moneyed cause or client. As it states on its website: "Burkman & Associates has been providing registered lobbying services for business, special interest groups and high net worth individuals since 2002."

The firm's website quotes a study that supposedly found that for every $1 a firm spends on lobbying, it gets "$760 back in the form of contracts, subsidies or favorable legislation."

Burkman graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown Law School in 1992. He served as legislative counsel to Congressman Rick Lazio until 1997 when he entered the lobbying business. The site portrays Burkman as a leading advocate who appears regularly on news and public affairs broadcasts.

"John has been a fixture on television, providing legal and political analysis for CNN, NBC and Fox News beginning in 1998," it says.

As for Wohl, his Wikipedia profile identifies him as "an American far-right conspiracy theorist, fraudster, and Internet troll."

"Wohl and conservative lobbyist and conspiracy theorist Jack Burkman have allegedly been responsible for multiple unsuccessful plots to frame public figures for fictitious sexual assaults," the profile states.

About the robocall investigation

The FCC Enforcement Bureau worked with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to identify two dialing service providers that provided subpoena responses confirming the robocall campaigns and identifying the clients who had hired them for this service.  

"The Bureau used the subpoenaed call records and recordings of the calls to determine that the calls apparently went to wireless phones and the message was prerecorded," the FCC said. The consumers who agreed to speak with the Bureau about the calls confirmed they had not provided prior consent to the callers.  

The subpoenas also produced email exchanges between the dialing service vendors and Wohl and Burkman about the call campaigns – including choosing which zip codes to target and “the tape we want to go out.”

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James R. Hood

Jim is a publishing entrepreneur and journalist. He founded ConsumerAffairs in 1998 and earlier was the founder of Zapnews, after holding executive posts at the Associated Press.