By Zach Hagadone
Since 2015, Sandpoint area residents have received anonymous robocalls attacking a range of targets, including Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad and, beginning in September 2018, Sandpoint Reader Publisher Ben Olson.
Based on the Reader’s reporting, former Sandpoint resident Scott D. Rhodes was identified as the culprit behind a campaign of racist propaganda distributed at Sandpoint High School. Subsequent reporting linked Rhodes to robocalls around the country. Soon after, Rhodes was evicted from his home in Sandpoint and apparently resettled in Libby, Mont. However, the robocalls — and, most recently — spam emails targeted at the Reader and others, didn’t stop.
Now, following a report from The New York Times in late-2019 linking Rhodes to a similar spate of racist robocalls related to the killing of 18-year-old Barnard College student Tessa Majors, the Federal Communications Commission announced Jan. 30 it is proposing a nearly $13 million fine against Rhodes for “illegal spoofed robocalls.”
Alleging that Rhodes employed “caller ID spoofing in thousands of robocalls that targeted specific communities with the intent to cause harm,” the FCC went on to list a number of incidents from around the country — including Sandpoint.
“The caller apparently made 750 spoofed robocalls in September 2018 to residents of Sandpoint, Idaho,” the commission stated in a news release. “The calls attacked the local newspaper, the Sandpoint Reader, and its publisher, after the paper had exposed the identity of the caller as the robocaller involved in other calling campaigns. The calls in Sandpoint identified the publisher by name and threateningly called on residents to ‘Burn out the cancer.’”
The commission’s Enforcement Bureau identified six specific campaigns apparently carried out by Rhodes, including the September 2018 calls directed at Olson.
Other alleged instances of robocalls containing racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and/or anti-immigrant content occurred in California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Virginia. In Iowa, Rhodes allegedly leveraged the killing of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, of Brooklyn, Iowa, to push an anti-immigrant message.
FCC stated that the Truth in Caller ID Act makes it illegal to manipulate caller ID information “with the intent to defraud, cause harm, or wrongfully obtain anything of value.” According to the FCC news release, Rhodes seems to have employed “an online calling platform” that enabled him to intentionally misrepresent his calls as coming from local numbers, which is known as “neighbor spoofing.”
FCC spokesman Will Wiquist told the Reader the commission had gathered information about the robocalls from news reports and consumer complaints to arrive at the allegations and penalty proposed against Rhodes.
“We then investigated and found six different campaigns and were able to work with the online robocall vendor [Rhodes] had hired to get information about where the calls were originating in order to build our case,” Wiquist said.
When asked if there was definite proof tying Rhodes to the robocalls, Wiquist responded, “Yes.”
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a formal statement identified Rhodes as the subject of the Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture, which advises a party that they have apparently violated the law and puts forward a proposed penalty — in this case, $12,910,000. Neither the NAL nor the allegations are final actions by the commission.
Pai went into some detail on the calls targeting the Reader, including some of their specific — and colorful — claims: “[B]etween September 21 and September 24, 2018, Rhodes apparently made 750 spoofed robocalls to Sandpoint, Idaho residents. He again apparently used a false caller ID to attack the local newspaper and claim that its publisher was ‘a cancer’ and ‘a degenerate bartender,’ urging listeners to ‘burn out the cancer.’”
Rhodes will be given the opportunity to respond to the commission, as well as submit evidence and legal arguments before a final action is taken.
“The way we work is to propose a fine, then Mr. Rhodes will have a chance to file with us a response,” Wiquist said. “After which, we could decide to move forward with a final fine. After that, we hope to collect.”
Wiquist told the Reader that if payment is not made for the final fine, the FCC will refer the case to the Department of Justice for collection.
“Today, we begin to hold Rhodes accountable for his apparent violations of the law,” Pai wrote in the statement. “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. But it once again makes clear this Commission’s determination to go after those who are unlawfully bombarding the American people with spoofed robocalls.“
Additional reporting by Reader staff.
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