HOUSTON (CN) — Catherine Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips, leaders of the election denial group True the Vote, entered a Houston federal courtroom Monday morning looking dejected.
Engelbrecht gave her necklace with a cross pendant to a friend in the gallery, as Phillips sat at the defense table closing his eyes with a look of concentration like he was praying.
The pair are held up in almost saintlike reverence by conspiracy theorists who believe Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election due to voting fraud.
Trump has cited a documentary they co-produced called “2000 Mules” as proof that ballot trafficking swung the election to Joe Biden, though experts say the film’s claims – based on cellphone app geolocation data and drop box surveillance footage of so-called ballot-harvesting “mules" – are bogus.
Some Arizonans take True the Vote’s theories as gospel.
Voters in the Grand Canyon State have recently filed complaints that supporters of the group are staking out drop boxes, some of them wearing tactical gear and armed with pistols, filming and photographing the voters as they drop off their ballots for the midterm elections.
Engelbrecht’s and Phillips’ portrayal of themselves as “true patriots,” willing to fight the good fight to expose election corruption, appeared valid Monday morning.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt ordered them detained by U.S. marshals for contempt until they comply with a temporary restraining order.
Konnech, a small Michigan-based purveyor of election logistics software, sued True the Vote, Phillips and Engelbrecht for defamation on Sept. 13.
Hoyt, a Ronald Reagan appointee, held the duo in contempt for being evasive about a January 2021 meeting at a Dallas hotel room, where Phillips testified a man named Mike Hasson plugged a laptop into the hotel TV and brought up the personal information of 1.8 million U.S. poll workers purportedly stored by Konnech on a server in China.
The judge issued the TRO early in the litigation, directing Phillips and Engelbrecht to identify each person involved in taking Konnech’s data.
At a hearing last Thursday, Phillips testified that there was another man in the hotel room but he could not name him because he is an FBI confidential informant who works with cartels at the U.S.-Mexico border and revealing him would put him in mortal danger.
Both Phillips and Engelbrecht, whose two bodyguards accompany them to court, testified they constantly receive threats. Engelbrecht said every associate they divulge gets “doxxed and harassed.”
And in an Oct. 12 text message transcript filed Friday by True the Vote’s defense team, Engelbrecht wrote, “There is the possibility that I’ve been poisoned. Toxicology reports are being reviewed now.”
Unsympathetic, Hoyt gave them until Monday at 9 a.m. to name the third person in the hotel room.
One of their attorneys, Michael Wynne of Houston-based firm Gregor Cassidy Wynne, tried to head off their arrest Monday morning. He told Hoyt he had spoken to FBI agents over the weekend and confirmed the mystery man is a confidential informant for the agency. Wynne asked Hoyt to give him six hours for his source to attest to that.
Hoyt rejected the offer. The judge said he has yet to get a straight answer about who exactly was in the Dallas hotel room and noted he initially heard from True the Vote’s defense team Phillips had given the hacked data to the FBI, which conflicted with his testimony Thursday in court that he never had access to the data but had only directed Hasson to hand it over to the FBI.
As for threats against Engelbrecht and Phillips, Hoyt said, “When you step into this world, whatever world they’ve stepped into, you should probably expect that.”
Konnech’s attorney, Dean Pamphilis of the Houston office of Kasowitz Benson Torres, said he talked to Wynne before Monday’s hearing, but they did not discuss any potential confidentiality agreement to keep the FBI informant’s name under seal.
Pamphilis stated True the Vote’s assertions they need to keep his name private is a red herring because Konnech has not heard any testimony that his confidential informant status, or his work, has anything to do with this case.
On top of that, Pamphilis said, True the Vote’s counsel has admitted the “FBI said they have no interest in engaging with the court to protect the confidentiality” of anyone involved in the hack of Konnech’s data.
After Hoyt ordered Phillips and Engelbrecht detained, they quietly followed a U.S. marshal with a silver star badge hung around his neck out of a side door.
After the hearing, Hoyt ordered Engelbrecht and Phillips to reimburse the U.S. Marshals Service at a rate of $85.61 for each day of their confinement at the Joe Corley Detention Facility, a federal lockup 40 miles north of Houston. They must pay the debt before their release.
Though Konnech appeared to have a strong defamation case at the outset, narratives have shifted on both sides of this litigation.
Konnech asserted in its lawsuit it “does not, and has never, stored any actual customer or poll worker data on any server in China,” only to see its founder and CEO Eugene Yu arrested Oct. 6 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 U.S., and a probe by his office had found probable cause Konnech was storing the data on servers in China.
True the Vote revealed in case filings that Phillips had testified to a Los Angeles County grand jury, leading to Yu’s indictment on charges of grand theft by embezzlement of public funds and conspiracy to embezzle public funds. If convicted, he faces up to eight years in prison.
Released on bond after his Oct. 14 arraignment in LA County, Yu is on house arrest with an ankle monitor. In a motion to dismiss his indictment, his attorneys wrote, “This is a deeply misguided prosecution. This is a civil breach of contract case that has been dressed up in a costume that doesn't fit,” Reuters reported.
Meanwhile, Konnech’s business is reportedly suffering after the city of Detroit and two counties in Virginia terminated their contracts with the company following Yu’s arrest.
Despite their prosecution of Yu and seizure of hard drives from Konnech for their investigation, LA County prosecutors said none of the CEO’s or company’s actions had changed election results. Konnech maintains its software has nothing to do with counting ballots.Follow @cam_langford
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