In heated exchange, federal judge demands True the Vote identify who provided access to poll worker data
The Texas nonprofit has spread voter fraud conspiracy theories for years. Konnech Inc. accuses the organization of defamation and computer fraud in a lawsuit.
BY NATALIA CONTRERAS,
VOTE BEAT AND THE TEXAS TRIBUNE
OCT. 7, 2022
HOUSTON — Inside a nearly empty federal courtroom Thursday, a fiery argument broke out between a judge and the lawyers representing Texas-based nonprofit True the Vote in a defamation and computer fraud case
filed by a Michigan-based election software company.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt warned Houston-based attorneys Brock Akers and Mike Brewer that they might be getting “played” by their conservative nonprofit client after the attorneys repeatedly argued against disclosing the source of the information central to the case, about sensitive poll worker data managed by Konnech Inc.
In podcasts and elsewhere, True the Vote has repeatedly claimed that it directed “analysts” to hack Konnech’s servers, which the group claims were in China and thus proof of the company’s work on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. After Konnech sued True the Vote last month for defamation
, Hoyt ordered
True the Vote to turn over any Konnech data the organization still had and disclose the name of the individual who’d helped them obtain it.
The contentious tone in the courtroom demonstrated the precarious position the lawsuit has put True the Vote in. The group has spearheaded the spread of voter fraud conspiracy theories in Texas and beyond for years — most recently by producing the debunked
voter-fraud documentary “2000 Mules”
— and has faced very little accountability for it. Now True the Vote is trying to maintain its conspiratorial claims about Konnech while also denying accusations that it illegally hacked data or misled the public about the company and its CEO.
In its own legal filings
, True the Vote said that contrary to its prior public statements, the group had never been in possession of Konnech’s data but had simply been shown it by a source.
Konnech’s lawyers, meanwhile, asked the judge to hold True the Vote’s founder, Catherine Engelbrecht, and a board member, Gregg Phillips, in contempt
for failing to follow the judge’s order.
In court Thursday, Akers and Brewer were reluctant to release the source’s name in court, saying they feared for the man’s safety.
Hoyt — a judge nominated to the bench by President Ronald Reagan
— wasn’t having it.
The judge said he didn’t “have any confidence” in True the Vote’s version of events, in part because he said the group’s leaders haven’t submitted sworn affidavits under penalty of perjury to support them. True the Vote’s lawyers said they didn’t believe their clients needed to appear at the hearing.
“Do errors get made [in elections]? Yeah,” Hoyt said as he continued to question True the Vote’s trustworthiness. “Do people cheat? Perhaps. But all of this hustle and bustle about the integrity of the process? Is the way to fix the process to tear it apart? That’s not integrity.”
He demanded the lawyers release the name of the source.
After nearly two hours of arguing back and forth, Akers followed the judge’s order and looked through a stack of documents in his briefcase, hunting for the name. Once he found it, he wrote it down in a yellow notepad, ripped off the page, walked across the room and handed it to Konnech’s attorney, Dean Pamphilis. Not satisfied, Pamphilis asked that Akers say the name out loud for the record. After Hoyt instructed him to comply, Akers did so.
Votebeat is not publishing the name. Reporters were unable to independently confirm the named person’s identity or his involvement, and were unable to reach him on Thursday or Friday.
Thursday’s hearing was overshadowed by this week’s unexpected arrest of Konnech CEO Eugene Yu by local police in Michigan, acting on behalf of the Los Angeles County district attorney. The county sought Yu’s extradition to California as “part of an investigation into the possible theft of personal identifying information” of poll workers, according
to a press release by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.
Yu was released on bond Thursday, hours before the hearing in Houston, and is expected in court in Los Angeles next week. The Los Angeles County attorney’s office has alleged that the poll worker data was being improperly stored on Chinese servers in violation of the county’s contract with the company but has not responded to multiple requests by Votebeat to clarify the charges against Yu.
Pamphilis said the California charges were irrelevant to the defamation suit in Texas and also asserted that his client had been wrongfully arrested.
“Konnech intends to hold accountable in court all of those responsible for the damages caused by their outrageous conduct including the wrongful detention of Mr. Yu while he was enroute to testify in this case,” Pamphilis said in a statement.
Akers and Brewer framed Yu’s arrest as vindication for the group as well as for Engelbrecht and Phillips, and as confirmation of the allegations True the Vote had made against Konnech. “Ironically, Plaintiff’s founder and CEO was indicted in Los Angeles County, in coordination with Michigan authorities, and arrested for maintaining sensitive ‘personal identifying information’ on servers in Communist China,” the attorneys wrote in a court filing
In a statement posted on its website and social media channels, True the Vote claimed credit for Yu’s arrest hours after he was taken into custody.
“True the Vote is honored to have played a small role in what must have been a wide ranging and complex investigation. The organization is profoundly grateful to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office for their thorough work and rapid action in this matter,” the statement says.
But a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County district attorney told Votebeat Tuesday that the office had not received any information on the case from True the Vote.
In court, Pamphilis also pushed back against True the Vote’s taking credit for the arrest: “To the extent that they’re going to claim it is relevant, all it does is demonstrate the importance of the data we’re trying to protect and their culpability in having that data in the first place, which they had no right to have.”
Hoyt agreed that Yu’s arrest and the defamation lawsuit were separate issues.