Men charged with using robocalls to intimidate voters

By: Brendan Losinski | C&G Newspapers | Published October 16, 2020




METRO DETROIT — Two men described as “political operatives” by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office have been charged with crimes related to voter intimidation.

The men were identified as a 54-year-old Arlington, Virginia, man named John “Jack” Burkman and a 22-year-old Los Angeles resident named Jacob Wohl. They were arraigned in Michigan’s 36th District Court Oct. 8.

Prosecutors say they allegedly used robocalls targeted at urban areas with significant minority populations in an effort to intimidate voters from participating in the November general election.

“The recorded robocall message warns people about being ‘finessed into giving your private information to the man’ and urges them to ‘beware of vote by mail,’” the Attorney General’s Office said in a press release. “The caller, who claims to be associated with an organization founded by Burkman and Wohl, falsely tells people that mail-in voting, in particular, will allow personal information to become part of a special database used by police to track down old warrants and by credit card companies to collect outstanding debts. The caller also deceptively claims the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will use the information to track people for mandatory vaccines. However, none of that is true.”

The calls were made in late August and went out to nearly 12,000 residents with phone numbers from the 313 area code. Nessel’s office believes around 85,000 robocalls were made nationally, including to voters in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois.

Attorney General’s Office Press Secretary Ryan Jarvi said the office was not aware of any charges brought against the defendants in the other four states.

Charges were filed against Burkman and Wohl Oct. 1, and the pair turned themselves in Oct. 8. Both defendants were charged with one count of election law — intimidating voters, which is a five-year felony; one count of conspiracy to commit an election law violation, which is a five-year felony; one count of using a computer to commit the crime of election law — intimidating voters, which is a seven-year felony; and one count of using a computer to commit the crime of conspiracy, which is a seven-year felony. If convicted of the charges, the maximum amount of prison time each defendant could receive under law is 12 years, due to Michigan’s concurrent sentencing statutes.

Burkman’s next court date is a preliminary exam scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 21, in 36th District Court. Wohl’s next court date was a preliminary exam scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 20, after press time, in the same court. Bail was set at $100,000 cash or surety for each defendant.

The Attorney General’s Office stated that anyone who received such a call on or around Aug. 26 and who wishes to file a complaint about it may do so by calling (517) 335-7650.

The Attorney General’s Office said that the claims allegedly made by the defendants are false.

“There is very little, if any, evidence to substantiate claims that mail-in ballots lead to fraud, as many states have successfully conducted the process for years,” the Attorney General’s Office said in its press release. “Michigan has had absentee voting for more than 60 years. In November 2018, Michigan voters overwhelmingly approved Proposal 3, which amended Michigan’s Constitution and gave all Michigan voters the constitutional right to vote by absentee ballot without excuse.”

Jarvi said that the calls seemed to be an attempt to discourage minority voters from casting a ballot.

“The urban areas where these robocalls were being made to contain primarily minority populations,” he explained. “This included areas such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, New York City and Cleveland. I’m not sure if we can say publicly where they were based out of when the calls were made.”

Jarvi also said the person in the call was female, but identified herself as representing an organization associated with both defendants.

“I’m not sure who the person in the call was,” said Jarvi. “The person identified themselves as a member of Project 1599, which was associated with Burkman and Wohl, which it listed by name. … There are well reported and well known acts that these two gentlemen participated in and have been known to make media attacks on political figures.”

He said he would not comment on the particular political affiliation of the defendants.

“I can’t say what their political leanings are. We are only prepared to say they were attempting to prevent people from voting in the upcoming November election,” Jarvi said.

Wohl’s attorney, William Amadeo, said that both Burkman and Wohl hold strong conservative opinions.

“He was allegedly making these calls as a right-winger,” Amadeo confirmed.

He went on to say that he believes Wohl was within his rights as an American citizen.

“I’m certainly not pro-Trump, but I am pro-constitutional rights, and this is a travesty of justice,” said Amadeo. “We posted bond and he is still waiting at the Detroit Detention Center, and he wasn’t released until the evening. He is being treated like a hardened criminal, and I have seen murderers and rapists given more respect than what Jacob is receiving right now.”

Burkman’s attorney, Scott Grabel, also defended his client’s actions, saying that nothing about what was in their message was actually illegal.

“The message speaks for itself. I don’t believe there was anything criminally liable with the call. I don’t think there was anything in the message that violated criminal law. The fact that they asked for a $1 million bond was comical,” Grabel said. “I don’t think these charges will be sustained. Is (Nessel) going to charge Trump too? I find that people may have differences of opinion on the veracity of the message, but I find it surprising that the charges are there and within minutes she’s doing Rachel Maddow and going on a national talk show. I wonder what the motivation for that was. The timing was somewhat problematic.”