Federal judge holds tight-lipped chiefs of election denial group in contempt
Leaders of the election-monitoring group True the Vote have until Monday morning to identify a man privy to the download of personal information of 1.8 million U.S. poll workers from a software company’s server, or they will be detained for contempt, a federal judge warned Thursday.
True the Vote, its founder Catherine Engelbrecht and contractor and former board member Gregg Phillips are leading proponents of the conspiracy theory voting fraud cost Donald Trump the 2020 presidential election.
With U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt threatening them with fines and arrest in a contempt hearing Thursday, they took the witness stand and alleged they were working as confidential informants for the FBI from 2021 to May of this year, helping with an investigation of Konnech Inc., a Michigan-based company that sells software to help manage election equipment and poll workers.
The hearing centered on a meeting in a Dallas hotel room in early 2021.
Phillips testified a friend of his named Mike Hasson summoned him to the hotel and after they rolled up towels and placed them under the door, Hasson plugged his laptop into a TV and showed him data Konnech maintained for U.S. poll workers —including Social Security numbers, phone numbers, email addresses and banking information — that Hasson said he had obtained by accessing a password-protected server in China.
According to a defamation and computer fraud lawsuit Konnech filed on Sept. 12 in Houston federal court, its Chinese-American CEO and founder Eugene Yu and his family had to leave their home due to threats from True the Vote supporters after Phillips and Engelbrecht spread lies at events and on podcasts the company is a vehicle of the Chinese Community Party to manipulate U.S. elections.
The same day Konnech sued, Hoyt issued a temporary restraining order, directing Phillips and Engelbrecht to identify each person involved in taking Konnech’s data.
The saga took an unexpected twist Oct. 4 when Yu was arrested by local police in Michigan working with investigators from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
District Attorney George Gascón said Konnech has a contract with LA County that mandates it keep election worker information on secure servers in the United States, and a probe by his office had found probable Konnech was storing the data on servers in China.
Two days later, Hoyt convened a contempt hearing at the behest of Konnech’s attorneys, Dean Pamphilis and Nathan Richardson of Benson Kasowitz Torres, because Phillips’ and Engelbrecht’s attorneys were refusing to identify who had accessed Konnech’s data.
They said it would jeopardize national security and was an “FBI matter.” But under pressure from Judge Hoyt, they named Hasson in open court at the Oct. 6 hearing, despite their concerns it would somehow endanger Hasson.
A few days before Yu’s Oct. 14 arraignment in Los Angeles County on charges of grand theft by embezzlement of public funds and conspiracy to embezzle public funds, which together carry a maximum sentence of eight years in prison, True the Vote’s attorneys revealed Phillips had testified before the grand jury that indicted Yu.
Back in Houston, Hoyt scheduled another contempt hearing because True the Vote’s counsel still had not complied with the TRO and named everyone who had been in that Dallas hotel room or seen the filched data.
True the Vote’s initial counsel withdrew from the case, and it hired new lawyers, John Kiyonga of Alexandria, Virginia and Michael Wynne with Gregor Cassidy Wynne of Houston, to represent them at Thursday’s hearing.
Wynne started off trying to appease Judge Hoyt and avoid any contempt order against his clients with a sworn affidavit from Phillips, stating the only people who have seen Konnech’s stolen data besides Hasson and Phillips were two Texas-based FBI agents to whom Hasson had given the data.
Pamphilis, Konnech’s attorney, complained that he had spent the last 45 days “chasing these guys around,” trying to get information they insisted they couldn’t give up due to national security concerns and had incurred $130,000 in attorney’s fees.
“I want them to put on the record today all info required by the [TRO]. And if not be fined a specific amount or confined to jail until they do comply,” he said.
Judge Hoyt agreed. “A motion for contempt can’t be answered with an affidavit,” he said. “It has to be addressed with testimony or suffer the consequences. Failing to testify can lead to them [Phillips and Engelbrecht] being incarcerated. … This isn’t criminal contempt, it’s coercive contempt. They hold the key to the jailhouse. They can get out if they testify.”
After Phillips, Engelbrecht and their entourage of attorneys and bodyguards retired to a side room for a conference, they returned to the courtroom and Phillips took the stand.
Phillips, 62, in a blue suit jacket and sporting a long salt-and-pepper beard said, “I’m a contractor for True the Vote and was on its board from 2014 to 2017.”
Phillips testified he does not know how Hasson accessed Konnech’s data. He also revealed the involvement of a mystery man: He said a third FBI confidential informant had been in the hotel room with him and Hasson, as he considered both himself and Hasson to also be CIs for the agency, helping it with voter fraud investigations.
On cross-examination, Pamphilis tried to pry the man’s identify from Phillips.
“There was somebody else in the room with you, who was it” Pamphilis asked.
“I’m not at liberty to say,” Phillips replied.
Judge Hoyt interjected, “I’m ordering you to.”
“I’m a confidential informant, I can’t do it,” Phillips said.
Engelbrecht, 52, then took the stand. Punctuating her testimony with long dramatic pauses, she also declined to name the third man in the Dallas hotel room: “I can’t give the name because he’s an informant.”
Engelbrecht said she and Phillips lost their FBI confidential informant status in May after the criminal division of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, which had been working with the pair on election fraud investigations, started calling different FBI offices and inquiring about them.
“The Arizona AG’s Office made so many calls it caused us to lose that status,” she said, before acknowledging that the agency had recently asked the FBI and IRS to investigate True the Vote because it had not delivered promised data proving widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
Engelbrecht and Phillips co-produced, with conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, a documentary called “2000 Mules” in which they purport to show, using cellphone app geolocation data and surveillance footage how 2,000 people, “mules,” working for unnamed nonprofits potentially stuffed 380,000 fraudulent ballots in drop boxes in five swing states that Joe Biden narrowly won in the 2020 election.
Near the end of a four-hour hearing that felt like eight hours, Wynne, True the Vote’s attorney, asked Engelbrecht if she would reveal the mystery man’s name if he could confirm with the FBI it is OK to do so.
“Yes,” she replied. “But I’m just very concerned about security.”
Hoyt pointed out that as a federal judge, he has the “highest security clearance of anyone in this country” and said Engelbrecht and Phillips must divulge the man’s identity before a hearing Monday morning
“They are both in contempt of court. And they have until 9 a.m. Monday to cure it, otherwise I’ll ask the U.S. Marshals to detain them,” Hoyt pronounced.