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Conservative operatives face felony charges in connection with robocalls seeking to mislead voters

Right-wing conspiracy theorists Jack Burkman, left, and Jacob Wohl hold a news conference in Arlington, Va., last year. (Dayna Smith for The Washington Post)

Two right-wing operatives infamous for inventing outlandish conspiracy theories face felony charges in Michigan for allegedly intimidating voters with inaccurate robocalls that discouraged residents in urban areas from casting their ballots by mail.

Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman were charged with four felonies of intimidating voters, conspiring to violate election law and using a computer to commit a crime, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced Thursday. Thousands of residents from at least five states received the robocall aimed at discouraging absentee voting at a time when many Americans are expected to vote by mail rather than in person during the coronavirus pandemic.

Each charge against the pair carries a five- or seven-year sentence if they are convicted in Michigan — adding up to a maximum 12 years as some sentences for the charges would be concurrent. Wohl and Burkman, who live in Los Angeles and Arlington, Va., respectively, have not yet been arraigned, Nessel’s office said, adding that it is “too early to say if formal extradition will be necessary or if they will present themselves here voluntarily in the very near future.”

Nearly 12,000 residents with phone numbers from the 313 area code in Detroit were targeted, Nessel’s office said. Attorneys general in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois reported similar robocalls made to urban residents, amounting to an estimated 85,000 calls nationally, according to the Michigan office.

The caller, who claims to work for a civil rights organization founded by Wohl and Burkman, falsely says personal information for those who vote by mail will be shared with police tracking down warrants, credit card companies collecting outstanding debt, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requiring mandatory vaccinations. The caller tells voters to not be “finessed into giving your private information to the man.” Officials said the call exploited “racially-charged stereotypes.”

Robocall targets battleground states with falsehoods about mail-in voting

“Any effort to interfere with, intimidate or intentionally mislead Michigan voters will be met with swift and severe consequences,” Nessel said in a statement. “This effort specifically targeted minority voters in an attempt to deter them from voting in the November election. We’re all well aware of the frustrations caused by the millions of nuisance robocalls flooding our cell phones and landlines each day, but this particular message poses grave consequences for our democracy and the principles upon which it was built. Michigan voters are entitled to a full, free and fair election in November and my office will not hesitate to pursue those who jeopardize that.”

Wohl and Burkman have not responded to requests for comment from The Washington Post or other media organizations since the announcement that they would be charged. When news of the call first surfaced in August, Wohl and Burkman denied their involvement, blaming “leftist pranksters.”

The phone number listed allegedly was Burkman’s cellphone number.

“No one in their right mind would give out their [cell] number on a robo [call],” Burkman told The Post then.

Famed for conspiracy theories and slapdash media briefings in Burkman’s driveway, Wohl and Burkman have been booted from social media sites including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for their outlandish claims, including bogus sexual assault accusations against special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.

Wohl previously recorded robocalls, according to the Daily Beast, which obtained a 2019 call from him, offering cash to Delaware and Pennsylvania residents with evidence of former vice president Joe Biden uttering racial epithets.