The Department of Justice announced on Thursday that it is seeking $9.9 million from a Montana man who has allegedly made nearly 5,000 robocalls, many of which were xenophobic, racist and threatening, to people across several states.
The massive fine was first imposed by the Federal Communications Commission on January 14. The agency said at the time that the man, 52-year-old Scott Rhodes from Libby, Montana, had targeted specific communities with "harmful pre-recorded messages" starting in 2017.
"The robocalls included xenophobic fearmongering (including to a victim's family), racist attacks on political candidates, an apparent attempt to influence the jury in a domestic terrorism case, and threatening language toward a local journalist," the FCC said in January.
The Justice Department said that hundreds of the calls targeted people in Brooklyn, Iowa after local college student Mollie Tibbetts was murdered. Rhodes allegedly told people that she had been murdered by a "biological hybrid of white and savage Aztec ancestors," and that if she "could be brought back to life for just one moment," she would ask the person Rhodes called to "kill them all."
Officials said more than 2,000 of the robocalls targeted residents of Charlottesville, Virginia during the jury selection for James Alex Fields Jr., the man who killed Heather Heyer and injured dozens of others when he drove a car through a crowd during the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally. The DOJ said that these calls included anti-Semitic and racist messages about the city's Jewish mayor and Black police chief, and used fat shaming language about the woman killed during the rally.
"It is unlawful to spoof caller ID numbers to trick consumers into answering unwanted phone calls with the intent to defraud, cause harm or wrongfully obtain anything of value," the Justice Department's Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian Boynton said in a statement. "The department will work with its agency partners to vigorously enforce the telemarketing laws that prohibit these practices."
The DOJ said its criminal complaint is to recover the fine issued by the FCC and "obtain an injunction that would prevent Rhodes from committing any further violations of the Truth in Caller ID Act."
Rhodes had made the calls using an online calling platform that manipulates caller ID information to make it look like he was calling people from local numbers, the FCC said, a method called "neighbor spoofing." The FCC said that along with wanting to cause harm, Rhodes wanted to "gain media notoriety and publicity for his website and personal brand."
In its forfeiture order, the FCC said that Rhodes promoted an entity called "The Road to Power" as part of his calls. Along with the harassing messages, they said, he directed people to the entity's website
The entity is believed to have paid for racist phone calls to Florida Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum in 2018. In the calls, someone falsely representing themselves as Gillum speaks in a racist, minstrel dialect while asking for voter support. "The Road to Power" has also taken credit for anti-Semitic robocalls targeting Democratic U.S. Representative Mark DeSaulnier earlier that year.
The forfeiture order came a year after Rhodes had been served with a Notice of Apparent Liability, which gave him an opportunity to dispute the allegations, the FCC said. In Rhodes' response, he said that the notice represents a "politically motivated gross overreach of FCC authority" that showcases the "corruption" of "minority in-groups" within the commission, an FCC report shows.
The commission said it was not convinced of the majority of Rhodes' argument, but was persuaded by his right to use one of the many caller IDs used during his series of robocalls. Given that right, they said, they reduced his original forfeiture amount from $12.9 million. He had 30 days to pay the amount, and his failure to do so prompted the Department of Justice's involvement.