(CN) – With the national spotlight on Iowa ahead of next week’s caucuses, the Federal Communications Commission is seeking a $12.9 million fine against a man who authorities say placed racist robocalls to Hawkeye State residents.
The FCC says Scott Rhodes made 6,445 robocalls throughout 2018 using spoofed numbers to spread racist conspiracy theories and call for the murder of undocumented immigrants, sometimes posing as Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum or Oprah Winfrey.
Over 800 of those calls spoofed numbers from Brooklyn, Iowa and concerned Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old college student whose July 2018 disappearance and death brought national attention to her hometown of 1,400.
The charging of Cristhian Bahena Rivera, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, in Tibbetts’ murder sparked a national firestorm, with President Donald Trump and supporters citing the incident as evidence that illegal immigrants are dangerous. Tibbetts’ own family, however, said that their daughter “vehemently opposed” that kind of rhetoric.
According to the FCC, Rhodes placed his calls to Brooklyn residents in August 2018, including Tibbetts’ family. He allegedly made reference to a “brown horde” and claimed that Tibbetts would have said to “kill them all.”
Tibbetts’ was not the only controversy Rhodes weighed in on in his robocalls, the FCC says. In December 2018, he allegedly made 2,023 calls to numbers in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the trial of James Fields, a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi who was ultimately convicted of murder for driving into a crowd and killing 31-year-old activist Heather Heyer.
The FCC says the Charlottesville calls related a conspiracy theory that blamed local officials for the crime. Their timing suggested they were meant to influence the jury in the case, and the judge questioned potential jurors about the robocalls and gave explicit instructions to the jury pool to ignore them.
Rhodes also appears to have attempted to influence elections, including a U.S. Senate primary in California, where the FCC claims he accused incumbent Dianne Feinstein of dual loyalties because of her Jewish heritage. Authorities say he also targeted gubernatorial contests in Florida and Georgia, where he told victims he was Gillum and Winfrey, who was campaigning with Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams at the time.
Rhodes is a resident of Libby, Montana, but at the time of the calls was well known in Sandpoint, Idaho, as a local white supremacist activist. He was removed from the grounds of the local high school in 2017 for distributing flyers and CDs with white supremacist propaganda on them, according to the Spokane Spokesman-Review.
The FCC also implicated him in 750 calls to Sandpoint residents targeting the publisher of the local newspaper, the Sandpoint Reader. The calls in all these cases made reference to Rhodes’ website and podcast, “The Road to Power.”
The proposed fine of $12.91 million was controversial within the FCC, with several commissioners weighing in on the issue individually.
Chairman Ajit Pai praised the move, saying that “today, we begin to hold Rhodes accountable for his apparent violations of the law.”
“Our notice of apparent liability will not undo the harm caused by these spoofed robocalls, particularly to the grieving family of Mollie Tibbetts and the community of Brooklyn,” Pai said in a statement. “But it once again makes clear this commission’s determination to go after those who are unlawfully bombarding the American people with spoofed robocalls.”
Other commissioners agreed with the intent of the fine, but not with the amount. For Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, it wasn’t enough.
“These spoofed calls are fraud. We should throw the book at the scam artists behind them. We should fine them to the hills. We can’t be shy about taking strong action to stop this nuisance,” she said in a statement.
Rosenworcel added, “The fine in this enforcement action is nowhere near as high as it should be given that the individual behind this mass of robocalls was responsible for no less than six separate spoofing campaigns. In fact, it falls far short of the maximum fine the agency could have levied.”
Commissioner Michael O’Rielly saw it differently, saying in a statement that inflammatory political speech, while psychologically distressing, “is entitled to the highest order of legal protection.”
“We need to be especially careful not to play fast and loose with the statute when speech intended to persuade others or influence public opinion—in other words, political speech—is involved,” O’Rielly said.