Mon. Apr 22nd, 2024

A New Orleans magician says a Democratic operative paid him to make the fake Biden robocall 

By 37ci3 Feb23,2024


NEW ORLEANS — A Democratic consultant who worked for a rival presidential campaign paid a New Orleans magician to use artificial intelligence to impersonate President Joe Biden for a robocall that is now at the center of a multistate law enforcement investigation, according to text messages, call logs and Venmo transactions the creator shared with NBC News.

Paul Carpenter says he was hired in January by Steve Kramer — who was working on ballot access for Democratic presidential candidate Dean Phillips — to use AI software to make an imitation of Biden’s voice urging New Hampshire Democrats not to vote in the state’s presidential primary. 

“I created the audio used in the robocall. I did not distribute it,” Carpenter said in an interview in New Orleans, where he is currently residing. “I was in a situation where someone offered me some money to do something, and I did it. There was no malicious intent. I didn’t know how it was going to be distributed.”

Carpenter — who holds world records in fork-bending and straitjacket escapes, but has no fixed address — showed NBC News how he created the fake Biden audio and said he came forward because he regrets his involvement in the ordeal and wants to warn people about how easy it is to use AI to mislead.

Creating the fake audio took less than 20 minutes and cost only $1, he said, for which he was paid $150, according to Venmo payments from Kramer and his father, Bruce Kramer, he shared.

“It’s so scary that it’s this easy to do,” Carpenter said. “People aren’t ready for it.”

Carpenter shared what he says is the original audio file created with Eleven Labs that appears to be a complete and higher quality version of the recording of the call NBC News previously reported.

The robocall has drawn intense attention from New Hampshire and federal law enforcement officials for possibly violating state voter suppression and federal telecom laws. Officials have mentioned the name of a Dallas company that was used to place the automatic phone calls to voters ahead of the state’s primary and have vowed to investigate, citing a desire to make an example of those involved in the first known example of an AI-generated deepfake being deployed maliciously in an American political campaign. Authorities have not named Carpenter or Steve Kramer as targets of their investigation. 

The players

Steve Kramer is a longtime political operative, having worked for dozens of campaigns over 20 years including rapper Ye’s (formerly Kanye West) 2020 presidential campaign.

Kramer initially did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Days later, he said he would wait to speak on the matter until he publishes something on Saturday. “My op-Ed will explain all,” he said in a text.

The Phillips campaign and the candidate himself expressed outrage when asked about Steve Kramer’s alleged involvement, saying they would never work with him again and may pursue legal action if the allegations are confirmed.

NBC News has seen no evidence that the campaign directed Steve Kramer to produce or disseminate the robocall.

Man in street balancing a bent fork over his forefinger
Paul Carpenter performing a magic trick in New Orleans. Alex Seitz-Wald / NBC News

Federal Election Commission records show Steve Kramer was paid $259,946 by Phillips’ campaign in December and January. The payments were for ballot access work in New York and Pennsylvania, which includes canvassing for the signatures necessary to qualify for the ballot. The campaign said the work included production and distribution of a robocall that featured Phillips’ voice.

Payments listed in their campaign finance filings indicated Steve Kramer did get-out-the-vote work

“If it is true that Mr. Kramer had any involvement in the creation of deepfake robocalls, he did so of his own volition which had nothing to do with our campaign,” said Phillips press secretary Katie Dolan. “The fundamental notion of our campaign is the importance of competition, choice, and democracy. We are disgusted to learn that Mr. Kramer is allegedly behind this call, and if the allegations are true, we absolutely denounce his actions.”

Phillips’ campaign said its relationship with Steve Kramer ended several weeks ago, after he completed his contract to gather signatures to help the candidate get on the ballot in his assigned states and there have had been no communication with him by late Thursday.

The magician and the political consultant

Carpenter, who was born in Houston, and calls himself a “digital nomad artist of life,” did not expect to end up in the middle of a national political scandal when he says he met Steve Kramer last year. 

“The only thing missing from the political circus is a magician and here I am,” said Carpenter, who also hosts a podcast, has created mentalism instructional videos and says has performed in 24 countries. 

In the past few years, he said he’s been building computer programs and experimenting with NFTs, content creation, and AI.

He rides a motorcycle with his Dachshund-Chihuahua mix, who wears dog goggles. His political views are eccentric.

He speaks of his belief in right-wing conspiracy theories like the “deep state” and has “some issues” with the first moon landing, but also says he staged a performance art piece where he placed a porcelain toilet on former President Donald Trump’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and pretended to defecate on it.

He has staged several such stunts meant to provoke, he says, such as one in which he wore only a fig leaf in Times Square as an expression of “radical authenticity,” and another in which he filmed himself portraying various American archetypes, including a white supremacist with a swastika on his forehead, which he says was about showing that we are all human, despite how much we may hate each other.

He and Steve Kramer were introduced through a mutual acquaintance, for whom he had done some web design and social media management work, Carpenter said, and took an interest in his experience with AI.

Carpenter said he believed Kramer was working for the people whose voices he was being asked to imitate and that the voice projects were authorized by the campaigns. He had not heard of Phillips and said he was not aware of Kramer’s work for the candidate.

The first two projects impersonated Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., apparently to be used in robo-polls asking GOP presidential primary voters which candidate they supported, Carpenter said. The third was the fake Biden audio telling Democrats not to turn out in New Hampshire.

“Have AI voice project,” Steve Kramer texted Carpenter on Sept. 27, according to text messages Carpenter shared with NBC News. The phone number in those text messages for Steve Kramer matched an online records search and it was also confirmed while reaching out to him for comment. Steve Kramer then sent Carpenter an audio sample of the South Carolina senator’s voice and said he would send a “script for Prez poll to match w the aforementioned SC voice.”

In January, three days before the New Hampshire presidential primary, Steve Kramer texted Carpenter again, saying he had emailed him a script. For payment, Steve Kramer then directed Carpenter to his father, Bruce Kramer, for reasons unknown to Carpenter. 

Venmo transactions show an account with the name Bruce Kramer paid Carpenter $150 in two transactions on Jan. 20.

“I have nothing to say on the subject,” Bruce Kramer said in a brief telephone interview on Thursday.

On Jan. 22, when NBC News first broke the news of the fake Biden robocall, Steve Kramer texted Carpenter a link to the story along with the message, “Shhhhhhh,” to which Carpenter replied, “Gtfooh,” an acronym used to express astonishment. 

Screenshots of call logs show numerous back-and-forth phone calls between Steve Kramer and Carpenter over the next several hours. Carpenter says he complied with Steve Kramer’s request to delete their entire email correspondence, which he says included the scripts for the fake Biden robocall and other instructions.

 A veteran Democratic strategist who does not know Kramer personally received an urgent message from him Jan. 30 asking to speak about the Biden robocall. The operative, who requested anonymity to speak about the private conversation, did not respond.

Who is Steve Kramer?

Steve Kramer, the president of his own small firm, is a get-out-the-vote specialist who has worked on dozens of mostly Democratic campaigns over the past 20 year, including some high-profile ones. He has extensive experience with robocalls, according to state and federal campaign finance records. 

Previously based in New York, he has a history of working in New York City politics. His Facebook page shows him frequently on vacation and enjoying nightlife in New Orleans or Miami in a loud shirt with a drink in hand.

Kramer has worked on numerous major campaigns, but this is not his first brush with controversy.

In 2020, he worked for the independent presidential campaign of the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, helping him with ballot access in several states and speaking on the record as a top strategist for the campaign. West ended up having problems over his ballot access in three states and was also criticized for his comments about slavery. 

In 2021, a former client, Sara Tirschwell, a Republican who had been running for mayor of New York City, sued Kramer. She accused him of sabotaging her campaign by delivering signatures that ended up being mostly invalid, preventing her from getting on the ballot. He has refused to comment on pending litigation but denied the accusations in court filings and the case remains open. 

He was also involved in Nomiki Konst’s 2019 campaign for New York City public advocate that led her former compliance officer to file a formal complaint with the city campaign finance agency on mysterious payments to a Louisiana firm with which Steve Kramer was involved. Konst has contended the complaint was entirely political and has been locked in litigation with the compliance officer, who then sued her for defamation. 

How the deepfake was made

Carpenter showed NBC News how he created the imitation of Biden’s voice, using a reporter’s voice as a stand-in to avoid violating the AI platform’s terms of service agreements against the unauthorized use of a person’s voice.

He used Eleven Labs, an AI text-to-speech voice generator that has been identified by an NBC News analysis and outside experts as the tool used to create the Biden robocall. He also used other mostly free AI tools to show how he could add the audio to a video of a person talking and animate their lips to match. 

“I’m not showing you anything you can’t learn how to do on YouTube,” Carpenter said.

Man throwing playing cards in the air
Paul Carpenter performing a magic trick in New Orleans. Alex Seitz-Wald / NBC News

Carpenter also demonstrated that his previous Eleven Labs account, linked to his main email address, was shut down by the company with a message saying, “We have closed your account due to unusual activity.”” Carpenter said the account was locked days after NBC News first broke the story, which is consistent with a Bloomberg report that Eleven Labs banned the account that created the robocall audio on Jan. 26.

He is being represented pro-bono by an attorney he found on Reddit, Brandon Kizy, a criminal defense and First Amendment attorney based in Detroit.

“Paul had no prior knowledge of what the AI-generated content would be used for and Paul did not have any knowledge that it would be used to potentially affect or be used in connection with any election or voter activity,” Kizy said.

So far, the public portion of the law enforcement investigation into the calls has focused on a Texas telemarketing company that they say distributed the robocalls. New Hampshire authorities have said they’ve asked federal officials to examine whether the calls violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act; the Truth in Caller ID Act; and the Telemarketing and Consumer Fraud and Abuse Prevention Act.

The fake Biden calls reached between 5,000 and 25,000 people and “spoofed” the originating number, according to authorities, to appear on caller ID as if they were coming from the former chairperson of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, who was running a pro-Biden write-in campaign at the time.

“We have never seen something so close to an election before and with such a blatant attempt to mislead voters,” New Hampshire Attorney General John Formella said earlier this month. “We don’t want this to be the first of many.”



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By 37ci3

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