New Hampshire’s Attorney General on Tuesday named a Texas telecom company as the source of an apparently AI-generated robocall impersonating President Joe Biden that told Democrats not to vote in last month’s presidential primary.
At a press conference in Concord, John Formella, a Republican, said his office has opened a criminal investigation after it worked with the Federal Communications Commission and a private industry group to trace the source of robocalls.
NBC News was the first to report that the calls had been made to voters ahead of the January primary vote.
With artificial intelligence technology becoming more accessible, Formella said he and other law enforcement agencies want to make an example of the case to deter others from trying something similar ahead of the November election.
“We have never seen something so close to an election before and with such a blatant attempt to mislead voters,” Formella said of AI robocalls. “We don’t want this to be the first of many.”
The calls could violate New Hampshire election laws against voter suppression, in addition to federal telecom statutes, he said, adding that law enforcement is actively pursuing both civil and criminal actions against the companies allegedly behind the calls.
Between 5,000 and 25,000 people received the calls the weekend before the Jan. 23 primary, Formella said, a sizable number considering fewer than 125,000 voters participated in the Democratic primary.
The call urged Democrats to “save your vote” until the November general election, giving a false impression that voters could only vote once. Formella said he could not say if the call actually led anyone to stay home.
Investigators traced the source of the call to Life Corporation, a Texas telecom marketing company, Formella said, adding that it appeared to be owned by a man named Walter Monk. Formella declined to comment on the potential motivations behind the call, political or otherwise, nor did he say much about the company or its owner.
“We are confident this is the source of the calls,” Formella said, adding that the company has been “involved” with the Federal Communications Commission at one point.
Formella’s office sent Life Corporation a cease and desist letter on Tuesday, ordering the company to stop “any further conduct” that could be voter suppression under state law.
Limited information is readily available online about Monk or Life Corporation, and the company does not appear to have a website. On LinkedIn, Walter Monk lists himself as a Dallas-based entrepreneur and the owner or chief technology officer of two other communications companies.
The owner of the LinkedIn profile did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News.
In 2003, the FCC issued an official citation to Life Corporation and more than a dozen alias company names for making “prerecorded unsolicited advertisements to residential telephone lines” in violation of federal telecom law.
The alias companies named in the citation appear to include dating businesses with names like “The Dating Game” and “Single Stars.” Another appeared to offer psychic services — “Psychic Inroads” — and several others had names similar to major financial firms or credit card processors, such as “Fidelity Checks, Inc.” and “Midwest Card Services.”
In a 2022 interview with a Fort Worth, Texas trade publication, Monk’s age is listed as 69 and he is cited as the founder of a political polling company that employs 30 people. A search of Federal Election Commission data found no payments to a firm of that name.
A search of political contributions from Monk turns up a single $5,000 check from 2008, plus another $5,000 on the same day from a person who appears to Monk’s wife, to a mysterious political group called PLR PAC. The group, known as a 527 for the portion of the tax code that governs it, appears to have spent nearly all of the $65,673 it raised on independent expenditures in support of then-Republican presidential candidate John McCain. There is little other trace of the group beyond that.
Formella cited another company, Lingo Telecom, also of Texas, as involved in the robocalls, as well as some companies he did not name, but declined to go into detail about their connection to calls.
New Hampshire officials, who are working hard to protect their first-in-the-nation primary after the Democratic National Committee tried to end it, took the issue seriously and the state attorney general’s office announced an investigation hours after NBC News first reported on the fake Biden robocalls.
Formella said his office received “multiple complaints” and is working on the case with the FCC, an anti-robocall coalition of all 50 state attorneys general, and a telecom industry trade group that conducts call traces for law enforcement and others.
“Our message is clear,” Formella said, “Law enforcement across the country is unified on a bi-partisan basis and ready to work together to combat any attempt to undermine our elections. We are committed to keeping our elections free, fair and secure.”
With AI a growing concern not just in politics, the FCC last month moved to criminalize most AI-generated robocalls.
“Don’t try it,” Formella said. “If you do…the consequences for your actions are severe.”