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FCC proposes $12.9 million fine against neo-Nazi robocaller Scott Rhodes

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 30, 2020

Scott Rhodes, left, speaks with Sandpoint police Officer Spencer Smith and Detective Mike Aerni, right, on Dec. 1, 2018, after Rhodes was identified as the man who distributed racist propaganda at Sandpoint High School. (Chad Sokol / The Spokesman-Review)
Scott Rhodes, left, speaks with Sandpoint police Officer Spencer Smith and Detective Mike Aerni, right, on Dec. 1, 2018, after Rhodes was identified as the man who distributed racist propaganda at Sandpoint High School. (Chad Sokol / The Spokesman-Review)

The Federal Communications Commission has proposed a $12.9 million fine against Scott D. Rhodes, a Nazi sympathizer who has plagued communities with racist, anti-Semitic and threatening robocalls while living in Libby, Montana, and Sandpoint.

In an announcement Thursday, the FCC said Rhodes, 50, has repeatedly violated the Truth in Caller ID Act by manipulating or “spoofing” calls to make them appear as if they came from local phone numbers.

The announcement confirms previous reporting by The Spokesman-Review and other news organizations linking Rhodes to thousands of abusive automated calls in at least eight states. Apparently working alone, Rhodes has made prolific use of the technology, denigrating public figures and seizing on local news events to promote his particular brand of white supremacist ideology.

The FCC said Rhodes “made unlawful, spoofed robocalls to target a community grappling with the recent murder of a local woman, threaten a journalist and newspaper, and attempt to influence a jury. Additionally, the caller made unlawful, spoofed robocalls related to political campaigns in California, Florida and Georgia.”

The commission said Rhodes “appears to have used an online calling platform” to send out his prerecorded messages, most of which directed recipients to visit his website, where he has hosted a video podcast titled “The Road to Power.”

The proposed fine is not final. The FCC said Rhodes will have an opportunity to respond to its findings and argue for a less severe punishment.

The Sandpoint Reader, a weekly newspaper, first reported on Rhodes when police identified him as the man who distributed racist propaganda at Sandpoint High School in late 2017.

The Reader and The Spokesman-Review first linked Rhodes to racist robocalls in May 2018. Those calls targeted U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, referring to her as a “traitorous Jew,” and urged white residents of that state to “relocate to North Idaho, where very white is very right.”

Rhodes, who previously used the surname Platek, appears to have moved to Sandpoint from California in 2015, the same year robocalls targeted the city’s liberal mayor during a re-election campaign. Rhodes moved to Libby in late 2018, and a neighbor on Thursday confirmed he still lives there. The Reader reported Rhodes had been evicted from his house in Sandpoint.

The FCC complaint details Rhodes’ robocall campaigns in six states, though he appears to be responsible for others.

The commission said in May 2018, Rhodes sent 1,496 robocalls to major cities in California, attacking Sen. Feinstein and “using an anti-Semitic trope accusing her of dual loyalties.”

In August 2018, Rhodes sent 827 robocalls to residents of Brooklyn, Iowa, following the murder of local college student Mollie Tibbetts. Cristhian Bahena Rivera, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was charged with the crime after Tibbetts’ body was discovered in a corn field.

Relatives of Tibbetts were among those who received the robocalls, which referred to Latinos as “brown hordes” and “savages.”

In September 2018, Rhodes sent 750 robocalls to residents of Sandpoint, attacking the Sandpoint Reader and the paper’s publisher, Ben Olson. The messages “threateningly called on residents to ‘burn out the cancer,’ ” the FCC said.

In October 2018, Rhodes made 766 robocalls attacking Democrat Andrew Gillum, who was running to become Florida’s governor at the time. “The robocalls falsely claimed to be from the candidate and used a caricature of a black dialect with jungle background noises,” the FCC said.

In November 2018, Rhodes made 583 robocalls to attack Stacey Abrams, a black Democrat who was running for governor in Georgia. “The calls pretended to be from Oprah Winfrey and concerned a racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theory,” the FCC said.

In November and December 2018, Rhodes sent 2,023 robocalls to residents of Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacist James Fields was on trial for murdering Heather Heyer by driving a car into a crowd of protesters at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally.

“The calls articulated a racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, which blamed local officials for the crime,” the FCC said. “The timing of the calls suggests an attempt by the caller to influence the jury. The judge questioned the jurors about the robocalls and explicitly instructed the jury pool to ignore the robocalls.”

The FCC complaint does not mention the robocalls that targeted Sandpoint’s mayor in 2015, calls that rang phones in Spokane in June 2018 or calls that targeted city leaders in Alexandria, Virginia, in fall 2017. According to a police report, investigators determined one of the Alexandria robocalls featured a recording of Adolf Hitler and traced the phone number to Rhodes and one of his Idaho-registered business entities.

In August 2018, Rhodes also sent robocalls to Sandpoint residents on behalf of Patrick Little, a fellow Holocaust denier who recently ran for a city council seat in Garden City, Idaho. And Rhodes appears to have sent additional robocalls in Georgia in May 2019, defending a 21-year-old white woman who was accused of shooting and killing a 62-year-old black man after a hit-and-run crash and an altercation.

More robocalls targeted the campuses of Columbia University and Barnard College in New York City in December, seizing on the recent murder of 18-year-old Barnard student Tessa Majors. They, too, advertised Rhodes’ “Road to Power” videos.

Telecommunications companies and federal regulators have been scrambling in recent years to curb the billions of annoying robocalls that ring cellphones each month. The FCC said it, along with the Federal Trade Commission and local law enforcement agencies, have received “numerous complaints” about the calls from Rhodes.

“Today, we begin to hold Rhodes accountable for his apparent violations of the law,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement.

The proposed fine, Pai said, “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.”

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