A pair of right-wing provocateurs are being accused of attempting to recruit young Republican men to level false allegations of sexual assault against Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.
The details of the operatives’ attempt emerged as one man suddenly surfaced with a vague and uncorroborated allegation that Buttigieg had assaulted him. The claim was retracted hours later.
A Republican source told The Daily Beast that lobbyist Jack Burkman and internet troll Jacob Wohl approached him last week to try to convince him to falsely accuse Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, of engaging him sexually while he was too drunk to consent.
The source who spoke to The Daily Beast said Burkman and Wohl made clear that their goal was to kneecap Buttigieg’s momentum in the 2020 presidential race. The man asked to remain anonymous out of a concern that the resulting publicity might imperil his employment, and because he said Wohl and Burkman have a reputation for vindictiveness.
But the source provided The Daily Beast with a surreptitious audio recording of the meeting, which corroborates his account. In it, Wohl appears to refer to Buttigieg as a “terminal threat” to President Donald Trump’s reelection next year.
Neither Burkman nor Wohl responded to repeated requests for comment on this story. But after The Daily Beast contacted them last week, traces of the scheme disappeared from the web and social media.
On Monday, a separate individual using the name of Hunter Kelly published a post on the site Medium in which he alleged that Buttigieg sexually assaulted him in February. That post was tweeted out by David Wohl, Jacob’s father, and quickly re-written by the site Big League Politics, which is known as a landing ground for right-wing conspiracy theories.
Kelly’s supposed Medium and Twitter accounts both say they were created this month. His Facebook page includes several posts lauding Trump and criticizing Hillary Clinton. He appears to have responded to Jacob Wohl’s posts on Instagram in the past.
The Daily Beast reached out to Kelly on a cellphone listed to him in the student directory at his Michigan college. Told we were reporting on apparent efforts by Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman to drum up false sexual assault allegations against Buttigieg, Kelly replied, “I was unaware this was happening. But yes it is true.”
Kelly wrote that he did not control the newly created Medium and Twitter accounts that posted the allegations under his name. When asked if he could verify his identity, he texted the Daily Beast a selfie that matched the photo seen on Medium and on Kelly’s longstanding Facebook accounts.
“Here is a selfie of me, sorry I have been crying,” he wrote. “Today and the promises made didn’t go as planned.”
Kelly declined to provide more details. But two hours later he posted a message to his Facebook timeline headed, “I WAS NOT SEXUALLY ASSAULTED.”
“It's important for everyone to know that I was not sexually assaulted and would never falsely accuse anyone,” he wrote. “To keep it brief for now, I was approached by a political figure to come to DC to discuss political situations from the standpoint of a gay Republican. When I arrived they discussed Peter Buttigieg and started talking about how they would be working a campaign against him.”
“I went to bed and woke up to a fake Twitter @RealHunterKelly and an article that I in no way endorsed or wrote. I have since left and am working on a formal statement to give to everyone including the Buttigieg family.”
The statement sent to The Daily Beast from the Facebook account on Tuesday said that Wohl and Burkman flew him to Washington, D.C., and showed him a statement detailing the bogus accusations against Buttigieg—which they then posted without his permission.
He went on to say that they also tried to get him to sign off on a script for a press conference—over his protests—but he called his family to come get him and then fled.
Burkman, in a statement, acknowledged that he had worked with Kelly but insisted that Kelly had come to him for help.
"While we’re disappointed by his reaction today, I can’t imagine the stress he’s currently under," said Burkman. "This is a difficult subject for anyone to face and unfortunately, as an attorney, there’s only so much I can do."
Asked about the allegation on Monday, Buttigieg called it made-up. “It's not going to throw us,” he said. “Politics can be ugly sometimes but you have to face that when you're in presidential politics.”
The man who told The Daily Beast that Wohl and Burkman approached him last week also described himself as a Trump supporter. He said he was connected to them by a friend in Republican politics, whom the duo had allegedly also pitched on the scheme. They met at a restaurant in the Washington area, where, the source said, both Burkman and Wohl introduced themselves using false names. Burkman assumed the alias of Matt Teller, the source said. Wohl, he said, just used the first name Bill.
The source added that he recognized Wohl because of his internet notoriety and decided to record their conversation, convinced that it could prove useful should any investigation be launched into the origins of the anti-Buttigieg scheme. The audio was provided on the condition that it not be published, so as not to reveal its source.
An expert in audio forensics contacted by The Daily Beast then examined the recording and confirmed that Wohl was one of the speakers.
"Our findings are that it is highly likely that one of the voice on the recording is Jacob Wohl's voice," Hafiz Malik, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, told The Daily Beast after analyzing the recording.
Malik and his graduate student compared the surreptitious recording to publicly-available recordings of Wohl speaking. The pair then matched similar words and syllables, comparing the voiceprints in each case.
The stealthy recording was noisy—with hums in the lower register, around 60 and 120 Hz. So Malik and his student compared the "high harmonics," and got a match.
The pitch by Wohl and Burkman wasn’t detailed, the source said, but it resembled past attempts by the duo to peddle dubious sexual assault allegations against perceived political foes. It would involve the accuser giving a press conference where he would publicly make his accusations about Buttigieg. The source said Wohl and Burkman seemed to want him to figure out many of the details, including a window of time during which he and Buttigieg were both in Washington, when the fabricated offense may have occurred.
When the source expressed reluctance, they assured him the scheme would make him wealthy, famous, and a star in Republican politics. Wohl cited the national recognition given to Christine Blasey Ford after she accused Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault during his confirmation hearings last year.
Wohl and Burkman described the source’s role as a “catalyst” whose false allegations would prompt actual victims to come forward. They promised that a number of such victims were waiting in the wings.
The goal, Wohl and Burkman stressed, was to hobble Buttigieg’s ascendant campaign, according to the audio of the conversation. The South Bend mayor has rocketed into the top tier of 2020 Democratic contenders, to the surprise of many national political observers.
Last Monday, Burkman wrote on Twitter, “2020 is shaping up to be more exciting than 2016. Looking like it will be Trump vs. Mayor Pete! Get the popcorn ready!”
The source did not agree to participate in the scheme, but Wohl followed up with a phone call a day or two later to see if he could recommend friends or associates who might be a good fit to play the victim in the hoax.
The phone number he called from was listed on the website of a company called Potomac Intelligence Group, which claimed to be a political and corporate intelligence firm with offices in Virginia and California. Matt Teller, the alias that Burkman used in the meeting, was listed as a Potomac Intelligence employee.
“Teller” also had a LinkedIn page, where he recently penned a post responding to a “blogger” who “wrote a story about Potomac Intelligence alleging that we work with the Saudi Government.”
It doesn’t appear that any such story was ever written.
“While we don't comment on our clients or the operations that we carry out on their behalf,” the LinkedIn post said, “we can say this: We will never apologize for our counter-terrorism practice.”
Minutes after The Daily Beast reached out to Wohl and Burkman, the Potomac Intelligence website was taken down, Teller’s LinkedIn page was deleted, and both of the company’s phone numbers were disconnected.
That website was similar in appearance to that of Surefire Intelligence, a fake company that Wohl set up under the pseudonym Matthew Cohen and used to peddle false sexual assault allegations against Special Counsel Robert Mueller last year. Both sites also were registered through the same anonymous domain registration service, and both used the same webmail provider, Protonmail, for their contact email addresses: email@example.com for the Mueller smear, firstname.lastname@example.org now.
The woman whom Wohl recruited to level those allegations against Mueller later told USA Today that Wohl had “made it up” and duped her into being the face of the allegations. The FBI signaled early this month that there was an active investigation into Surefire Intelligence, such as it is.
Wohl and Burkman have maintained a steady stream of publicity stunts in spite of that scrutiny. In February, at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, they held a “press conference” where they claimed that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) married her own brother to get him U.S. citizenship. In the course of “investigating” those claims, Wohl faked a number of death threats against himself.
More recently, he and Burkman held a press conference where they promised to unveil damning allegations of corruption and bribery in high-profile college athletics programs. The much-hyped event was a dud.
Their attempt to go after Buttigieg doesn’t appear to be going much better. As our source recalled, “I was sitting there thinking: this is the Fyre Festival of political operations.”
—with additional reporting by Sam Stein