FCC slaps voter suppression robocall scammers with a record-breaking fine

The two men admitted last year they attempted to suppress Black votes with vaccine misinformation ahead of the 2020 election.
Close up of woman's hands with smartphone and unknown incoming phone call on it
The FCC fined two men over $5 million for attempt to suppress votes ahead of the 2020 election. Deposit Photos

This week, the Federal Communications Commission issued a record-breaking fine against two operatives following their attempt to suppress Black voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election via a robocall scam.

According to the FCC’s official statement on Wednesday, Jacob Wohl and John Burkman previously pled guilty to telecommunications fraud in October 2022, in which they orchestrated over 1,100 of “unlawful robocalls” between August and September 2020. As Ars Technica explained on Thursday, Wohl and Burkman’s prerecorded message featured a Black voice actress identifying herself as “Tamika Taylor” who incorrectly stated that any personal information included in mail-in votes “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 robocall additionally made the false claim that the CDC intended to use mail-in voting to “track people for mandatory vaccines.”

In a separate legal complaint against the two men, plaintiffs explained “Tamika Taylor” is the name previously misattributed to Breonna Taylor’s mother, Tamika Palmer. Taylor was shot and killed by Louisville, KY police in 2020, and subsequently became a figure within the racial justice and police reform movements.

[Related: You can stop bots and spammers from calling you so freaking much.]

“This penalty emphasizes the seriousness with which we take our obligations to protect American consumers, and in this instance American voters, from being targeted through the clear and illegal misuse of U.S. communications networks,” FCC Enforcement Chief Loyaan A. Egal said in Wednesday’s announcement. The FCC’s fines are only the latest in an ongoing crackdown on robocall scammers. In December 2022, the Commission fined two men nearly $300 million for their own auto warranty scam that sent out over 5 billion robocalls in just three months. 

A paper trail linked the two men to a coordinated, purposeful targeting of minority voters ahead of the 2020 election. In an email on August 25, 2020, Wohl sent Burkman an audiofile to be used in the robocalls, and suggested, “’We should send [the message] to black neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Richmond, Atlanta, and Cleveland.” Burkman replied soon after, suggesting they also target Chicago and Minneapolis voters.

In a separate Ohio court sentencing concerning the same scam, Wohl and Burkman were ordered to two years of probation, six months of GPS monitoring, $2,500 in fines each, and 500 hours of community service registering voters in Washington, DC.