November 26, 2022

Two right-wing political operatives have pleaded guilty in Ohio to a telecommunications fraud charge for arranging thousands of robocalls that falsely claimed that the information voters included with mail ballots could be used by law enforcement and debt collectors, prosecutors said.

The operatives, Jacob Wohl, 24, of Los Angeles, and Jack Burkman, 56, of Arlington, Va., entered their pleas on Monday in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court in Cleveland, prosecutors said.

The men were indicted in 2020 after they were accused of using the robocalls to intimidate residents in minority neighborhoods to refrain from voting by mail at a time when many voters were reluctant to cast ballots in person because of the coronavirus pandemic. The calls also claimed that the government could use mail-in voting information to track people for mandatory vaccination programs, prosecutors said.

“These individuals infringed upon the right to vote, which is one of the most fundamental components of our democracy,” the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, Michael C. O’Malley, said in a statement announcing the guilty pleas on Monday.

According to the indictment, Mr. Wohl and Mr. Burkman were each charged with multiple counts of bribery and telecommunications fraud. Those charges were merged into one count each of telecommunications fraud under the plea deal in Ohio, James Gutierrez, an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor, said in an interview on Tuesday.

“We made convicted felons out of them,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “Our goal was to make them accountable, and we did.”

Mr. Gutierrez said that the count that the two men pleaded guilty to covered the calls that were made to voters in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland. They face up to a year in prison and a fine of $2,500 when they are sentenced on Nov. 29, he said.

Brian Joslyn, a lawyer for Mr. Burkman, did not respond to a call to his office requesting comment. Mark Wieczorek, a lawyer representing Mr. Wohl, declined to comment when asked about the plea deal.

When announcing the indictments in 2020, prosecutors in Ohio said Mr. Burkman and Mr. Wohl used a voice broadcasting service provider to place more than 67,000 calls across several Midwestern states. More than 8,100 of them went to telephone numbers in Cleveland and East Cleveland, and about 3,400 were answered by a person or went to voice mail.

The recorded messages “falsely warned people that if they voted by mail that their information could be used by law enforcement, collection agencies” and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “for the purposes of pursuing old warrants, collecting outstanding debts, and tracking people for mandatory vaccines,” Mr. O’Malley’s office said.

The Ohio attorney general, Dave Yost, whose office investigated the calls, said in a statement on Monday that Mr. Wohl and Mr. Burkman had been trying to suppress voting in minority neighborhoods.

“Voter intimidation won’t be tolerated in Ohio,” Mr. Yost said.

The allegations against the two operatives came at a time when Donald J. Trump, as president, was seeking to discredit mail-in voting, saying without offering evidence that it was rife with fraud. At the time, millions of voters were expected to vote by mail because of the pandemic.

Mr. Wohl and Mr. Burkman face similar charges in Michigan, where they were charged in 2020 with intimidating voters, conspiracy to intimidate voters, using a computer to intimidate voters and conspiracy to use a computer to intimidate voters, according to a criminal complaint.

Michigan’s attorney general, Dana Nessel, said the calls were part of a broad effort to intimidate nonwhite voters from casting mail-in ballots. The case is pending in the Michigan Supreme Court, a spokeswoman said on Tuesday.

The Federal Communications Commission last year proposed a fine of just over $5 million for Mr. Wohl, Mr. Burkman and his company, J.M. Burkman & Associates, for apparently making 1,141 unlawful robocalls to wireless phones without consent. An F.C.C. spokesman said on Tuesday that the proposed fine was still pending.

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