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FCC fines Jacob Wohl, John Burkman $5 million

The penalty was assessed in connection with hundreds of automated phone calls, which the agency said were placed illegally.

The penalty was assessed in connection with hundreds of automated phone calls, which the agency said were placed illegally.

The Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) has imposed a $5.1 million fine against several right-of-center conspiracy theorists who allegedly placed hundreds of illegal automated phone calls with messages about the 2020 presidential election.

The robocalls were made around September 2020, less than two months before voters went to the polls to choose between incumbent president Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden. The messages claimed that if voters cast their ballots by mail, their “personal information will be part of a public database that will be used by police departments to track down old warrants,” among other unfounded claims.

The agency learned about the robocalls on September 15, and said it traced more than 1,140 of them to J.M. Burkman and Associates. The calls violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), according to an FCC spokesperson, which requires explicit permission from wireless phone customers before automated calls are made to their numbers.

The recorded messages were made by conspiracy theorists Jacob Wohl and John Burkman — better known to the public as Jack Burkman — who identified themselves by name during the calls. Both men allegedly worked with an automated calling service to determine which ZIP codes would be targeted with the messages, the FCC said.

Agents with the FCC called all 1,140 numbers to see if the wireless customers had given Wohl and Burkman their consent to receive automated phone messages. Only two of the individuals called explicitly told the FCC they didn’t give anyone permission to call them in connection with the campaign, and didn’t even know who Wohl or Burkman were until agents contacted them.

The FCC took no position on whether the claims made in the recorded messages were part of a deliberate attempt to mislead voters ahead of the election, but said evidence collected during their investigation ultimately revealed that Wohl and Burkman knew their robocalling campaign violated federal communication rules. In August 2021, the agency proposed a $5.1 million fine against the men and the law firm J.M. Burkman and Associates.

Both responded with an appeal that claimed the robocall campaign was protected speech because they contained political messages. They also argued that they didn’t violate the TCPA because they didn’t physically dial any of the 1,140 numbers at issue.

This week, the FCC rejected the appeal and upheld the $5.1 million fine. In doing so, the agency pointed to a federal court hearing that was held in October 2020, in which Burkman affirmed that the automated messages were transmitted via “our call(s).”

“Respondents fail to provide any arguments or evidence supporting the insufficiency of the commission’s investigation,” an official with the FCC wrote in the agency’s final order on the matter.

Both men and the law firm now have 30 calendar days to send the FCC a check for the full amount of the fine — $5,134,500 — or risk having their penalty referred to the U.S. Department of Justice for enforcement.