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In chaotic court hearing, True the Vote leaders found in contempt

Testimony from Gregg Phillips and Catherine Engelbrecht muddies explanation of how they acquired evidence used to target election vendor Konnech — and who helped.

A seated woman gazing forward from a table in a crowded room.

Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of True the Vote, at a U.S. Senate hearing in 2015

Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Update, Oct. 31: Two leaders of True the Vote were detained Monday morning under the order of a federal judge who found them in contempt of court. At the hearing, Catherine Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips again refused to name a person of interest in the case.

After a chaotic day of testimony on Thursday, a federal judge in Texas found Catherine Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips — known as leaders of the group True the Vote — in contempt of court. They are facing accusations of defamation and computer crimes from a company at the center of a viral right-wing social media campaign engineered by the conservative voting organization. 

The judge informed the pair they would face jail time if they do not comply with the terms of a court order by Monday at 9 a.m.

“I expect both defendants to be present,” said U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt, a Ronald Reagan appointee, looking at their table. Marshals, he said, would be ready to arrest them.

Thursday’s finding of contempt was the latest in a string of twists in the civil suit filed in September by Konnech, a Michigan-based company that provides poll worker management software to elections offices. 

In filings and testimony, the basic facts and plot lines have shifted from week to week, often producing unexplained contradictions. True the Vote’s telling involves a lengthy middle-of-the-night hotel rendezvous, double-crossing federal agents, confidential informants, and security threats on two continents. 

Konnech’s lawsuit, on the other hand, alleges that True the Vote’s baseless and racist accusations against the company’s CEO, Eugene Yu, forced him and his family to flee their home in fear for their lives and damaged the company’s business. Meanwhile, Yu was arrested and charged by the Los Angeles district attorney on allegations of storing government data in China, in breach of its contract, that appear similar to at least some of the allegations True the Vote has made, and Los Angeles officials have said they received an initial tip from Phillips.

For years, Engelbrecht and Phillips have come under fire for promoting election conspiracy theories while offering scant evidence to support them. But their current campaign against Konnech is forcing them to back up what they’ve said since August on far-right social networks and platforms in the more skeptical setting of a federal courtroom.

Thursday’s hearing, which took place on the 11th floor of the federal court building in downtown Houston, was the first time either Engelbrecht or Phillips have appeared in court in the matter. Engelbrecht and Phillips testified only after the judge demanded they do so — Hoyt needed their testimony so he could rule on whether the pair should be held in contempt of court for refusing, for weeks, to hand over information he’d ordered they produce to the plaintiffs.

At issue is the name and contact information of individuals Phillips and Engelbrecht have alleged were present at a Dallas hotel meeting in January 2021, when True the Vote was allegedly given proof Konnech was improperly storing the personal data of “millions” of U.S. poll workers on a server in China. True the Vote then used that information to fuel months of vaguely defined accusations about the company and Yu in podcasts and appearances. 

Phillips and Engelbrecht repeatedly claimed Yu was an agent of the Communist Party of China. China, they said, had used the poll worker data to influence the 2020 election. The claims have powered weeks of fundraising for True the Vote, and Phillips and Engelbrecht have enlisted their followers to do additional research on Konnech. It’s an undertaking they’ve named “The Tiger Project.”

True the Vote’s legal team had already, in a court hearing earlier this month, produced one name: Mike Hasson. 

Not that they wanted to.

“On behalf of my clients we don’t want to release the name of this individual,” True the Vote attorney Brock Akers told Judge Hoyt in an Oct. 6 hearing. The “analyst” was, he said, in “danger from forces of the Chinese Communist party.” Hoyt didn’t buy it, and demanded Akers hand over the name, which Akers wrote on a yellow legal pad and read aloud for the record.  

True the Vote would only provide Hasson’s name, though. Asked Thursday for contact information or more detailed information about Hasson’s identity, Phillips told the court he had no way of contacting Hasson and had only communicated with him through unspecified messaging “apps.” He had not seen Hasson, he said, since the night at the hotel in January 2021. 

Shown a photo of a man who Konnech’s attorneys believed to be Hasson, Phillips said he didn’t recognize him. Shown the same photo, Engelbrecht also demurred. “My general recollection is that he was younger than I, and Caucasian. But beyond that I really couldn’t tell you,” said Engelbrecht. 

On Friday, True the Vote’s attorney’s moved to seal the photo, which Konnech’s attorneys had entered as an exhibit, “to safeguard the privacy of” the man depicted, in the event he is not indeed Mike Hasson.

Konnech’s attorneys — Dean Pamphilis and Nathan Richardson of the Houston office of  Kasowitz Benson Torres — were convinced Hasson hadn’t worked alone, given True the Vote’s insistence over weeks of broadcasts that the work had been done by “analysts” and “guys” in the plural. 

The attorneys pressed the pair for more names. 

Phillips, who took the stand first, said one other “analyst” had been present, though he said he didn’t believe this man had been involved in Hasson’s research. Phillips refused to name the man or describe the reason for his presence — as did Engelbrecht, who took the stand next.

“Every name I give you gets doxxed and harassed,” Engelbrecht said to Richardson. “I know what happened to Mike after his name was released and he’s in hiding.”

At that, the judge interjected. “Excuse me,” Hoyt said. “How do you know he’s in hiding?” 

“I’ve been … it’s been rumored. In fairness, it’s been rumored,” she responded.

She and Phillips told the court the second unnamed person was a “confidential informant” for the FBI. Phillips told the court the man would be at risk of harm from drug cartels on the border if identified, refusing to elaborate. Despite prompting from the judge, who expressed disbelief at the need for such discretion, both Phillips and Engelbrecht refused to name the person.

Hoyt has now given True the Vote’s attorneys until a Monday morning hearing to disclose the man’s name to Konnech’s attorneys, or Engelbrecht and Phillips will be held in jail until it is released. 

Shortly after the hearing, Phillips announced Hoyt’s decision on Truth Social. “Doing the right thing isn’t always easy but it’s always right,” he posted. “We were held in contempt of court because we refused to burn a confidential informant or our researchers. We go to jail Monday unless we comply.”

The post is thematically consistent with the image Engelbrecht and Phillips attempted to craft in the courtroom: That they are the victims of a smear campaign and have attempted in good faith to address election vulnerabilities, even at the expense of their own physical safety.

In addition to multiple lawyers, a paralegal, and a small handful of True the Vote associates, Engelbrecht and Phillips were accompanied on Thursday by two security guards. Dressed in suits with matching American flag lapel pins, the pair stood at attention on either side of an alcove in the hallway, where Engelbrecht, Phillips and a few others had gathered before the hearing.

Staring straight ahead, the two men pretended not to hear the group’s conversation, loud enough to be audible throughout most of the hallway.

“I’m the sacrificial lamb,” Phillips said, before being comforted by his attorney, who told Phillips he would seek to take the case “as incrementally as possible.”  Later a staffer offered her reassurance to others: “She’ll get her revenge,” she told them, apparently referring to Engelbrecht. “They always do.”

The bodyguards would then spend much of the day accompanying the small swarm of True the Vote associates in and out — and in and out — of the courtroom. The group’s attorneys, who were routinely admonished by Hoyt for flouting basic courtroom procedure, repeatedly requested breaks to consult with Engelbrecht and Phillips in whispers as they determined next moves.

On one break, Engelbrecht and her attorneys were gathered at a table in the courthouse cafeteria. I approached to ask Engelbrecht for a comment — Votebeat was publishing an unrelated story about True the Vote’s backing of an effort to monitor Arizona drop boxes that afternoon, and that morning the group had been sued for defamation in Georgia — only to be blocked by the second security guard, a tall, thin man wearing black running shoes with his suit.

“I’m sorry, I can’t let you go any further,” he said, stopping me a few feet from where they sat, citing unspecified “security concerns.”

Later, Engelbrecht would sit next to me in the courtroom gallery, unattended by security, having recognized me from prior coverage. “There is so much more to this,” she said, promising to say more when True the Vote’s present legal situation cleared. “It’s not what it seems.”

Neither she nor her team took additional questions from the press.

Engelbrecht and Phillips’ Thursday testimony offered the most insight into the tangled relationship between True the Vote, Konnech, and the district attorney of Los Angeles than any development so far. But the latest hearing highlighted how some aspects of True the Vote’s story have shifted from initial court filings, and how some of their answers in court conflict with their prior public descriptions of events.

In an event called “The Pit” held in Phoenix in mid-August and live-streamed on Right Side Broadcasting, Phillips and Engelbrecht told participants they’d “stumbled upon” hard evidence of a Chinese communist plot to influence the 2020 election. It revolved, they said, around a company called Konnech. 

The allegations hit right-wing social media like a bomb, sparking calls to county offices that had  contracted with Konnech. Over several weeks in August and September, Engelbrecht and Phillips repeatedly called attention to their fight against Konnech in podcasts and interviews. 

In an Aug. 23 episode of the Elijah Streams Podcast (which tells listeners its “mission is to encourage you in your faith through a unique blend of patriotism and prophecy”),

Phillips describes a meeting with some of his paid consultants. “My guys invited me to Dallas on a Friday night. We met in a hotel room, towels under the doors,” he said, nonchalantly. 

“Really?” interviewer Steve Shultz asked, impressed at the spectacle. “Wow.” 

“It was pretty weird,” Phillips offered in response. “It was like some kind of a James Bond kind of thing or some sort of weirdness like that.”

He told Shultz he arrived at the hotel close to midnight. One of the analysts plugged his laptop into the hotel TV, and the group looked at “rows and rows” of data for hours.

“I’m looking at this live. By 4:30 in the morning I was pretty well scared this was bad,” he said, expressing absolute confidence in the skills of those who’d helped him get the information. “Man, those are the best analysts in the country. In the world, maybe.”

As he tells the story in interviews, events, and podcasts, Phillips often describes aspects of the night differently. Occasionally, his versions contradict. In one, for example, he said he and the others in the hotel room that night were able to crack into Konnech’s data because they guessed the password, which had been “password.” In others, he insists there was no password at all, and “no hacking.”  

Central to many of the claims made by Engelbrecht and Phillips is a mounting tension with the FBI — an increasingly popular positioning in far right circles, where calls to “Defund the FBI” have seen a swell in popularity given former President Trump’s recent tangle with the agency. In one podcast, Phillips said the group “engaged with [the FBI] as an operational asset in a counterintelligence operation” against Konnech over a period of more than a year and a half before things changed. In another, Phillips claimed the FBI turned on him, accusing him of “stealing the Chinese internet” and threatening to investigate True the Vote. Though the specifics vary, the pair make clear they feel the FBI has not appropriately addressed the extent of their complaints. 

“The media, and now possibly even the FBI and other agencies in the federal government are supporting this nonsense. This is crazy,” Phillips said in a Sept. 2 podcast, looking to Engelbrecht for a response. “I agree,” she said. 

As the defamation suit got under way, the larger plot points appeared similar in sequence to the facts True the Vote’s lawyers represented to the court, conveyed in dry legal language that was considerably less dramatic. 

In late September, the group’s attorney — Brock Akers, an attorney in Houston who’d initially represented True the Vote in the matter — said in a court filing that True the Vote had “turned over data and information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation which had been given to them.” He offered few details as to who had provided the data or by what means. 

Then, details began to shift. 

In a hearing two weeks later, the same attorney told Judge Hoyt that True the Vote had never been in possession of the data. Mike Hasson, not Phillips or Engelbrecht, Akers said, “actually has the data who then turned it over to the FBI.” 

In Phillips’ testimony on Thursday, he said again that he’d spent more than four hours in a Dallas hotel with Hasson and an unnamed third party. From there, his explanations also begin to diverge from the previously established timeline.

When Pamphilis asked Phillips about previous claims that he and “his guys” had broken into Konnech’s data by guessing a simple password, Phillips said he had not personally accessed any information and did not know how the data Hasson showed him had been obtained. Asked if he was told about the existence of a password by someone else, Phillips said he didn’t remember. 

“I don’t have recollection,” said Phillips. 

Phillips said Hasson did not directly access any Konnech data that night in January 2021. Instead, Phillips said Hasson simply showed him files and screenshots that had been previously gathered. They could not have possibly downloaded the files — which Phillips said totaled “somewhere in the 350-terabyte range” — on hotel internet, Phillips said confidently. Lawyers for Konnech did not remark on the enormousness of the file size. (It takes about 2 billion document pages to amount to 350 terabytes, an amount of data that would fill nearly 1,500 standard laptops.) 

Phillips and Engelbrecht told the court that True the Vote and its supporters continued to research Konnech after Hasson revealed what he’d found, relying on “open source” research tools and public records requests sent to Konnech’s government customers. The fruits of this additional probe were shared with the FBI and LA County, they said. 

It was the unclear status of these ongoing investigations and acute concern for the safety of confidential FBI informants that prevented them from offering more extensive information as part of their Thursday testimony, both Engelbrecht and Phillips told the court. 

Hoyt asked Phillips and Engelbrecht additional questions when attorneys turned over the witnesses. While the judge attempted to clarify whether Phillips and his “analysts” were or were not claiming to have broken through a password, confusion arose as to the provenance of a Truth Social post written by a supporter and “re-Truthed” by Phillips. The poster claimed Phillips and his analysts used a default password to access Konnech’s data, mimicking Phillips’ earlier language. One of True the Vote’s attorneys — John Kiyonaga, who had already been instructed by the judge not to interrupt proceedings — jumped to his feet to object. 

“Excuse me, take your seat and don’t get up again,” Hoyt said to Kiyonaga, who continued to protest. 

“You are mischaracterizing her testimony, and that is unfair,” Kiyonaga barked. 

“Take your seat,” Hoyt said again. 

Engelbrecht, as Phillips had before her, ultimately provided no clarity on the existence of a password. 

By the end of the hearing, which had lasted for nearly five hours, Hoyt had lost all patience with True the Vote and its team. “I’ve been asked to make a finding of contempt, and that is my finding,” he said. “They are both in contempt of court.” 

The ruling came so swiftly that many of those seated at the defense table did not immediately register a reaction. Then, Engelbrecht took a slow breath. A paralegal, seated at the end of the table, stared at the judge. Kiyonaga looked as though he might erupt. True the Vote’s cohort of 12 then quietly left the courtroom, gathering their binders and bags and regrouping to whisper in the hallway. 

The next day, Friday, True the Vote attorney Michael Wynn submitted nearly 30 pages of evidence to the court, which he indicated was an effort by his clients to “purge contempt in advance of the hearing” on Monday. None of the documents identify the unnamed person present in the Dallas hotel room, nor do they more specifically identify Mike Hasson.  

Among the documents, however, are screenshots of text messages between Engelbrecht and several people True the Vote claims are FBI agents. Few messages sent by the identified agents mention Konnech, though Engelbrecht repeatedly and directly asks for updates on the company. As a whole, the screenshots do little to bolster True the Vote’s version of events. 

One set of text messages are between Engelbrecht and a person the documents identify as a San Antonio-based FBI agent named “Kristina,” though the screenshots list her name as “Kaykay.” They show several largely unsuccessful attempts by Engelbrecht to contact the agent in late September and early October. 

On Oct. 12 — exactly one month after Konnech filed suit against True the Vote — Engelbrecht wrote her lengthiest correspondence to Kakyay. “We have been drug into a vicious lawsuit filed against us by Konnech,” she wrote in part, before claiming that she, Phillips and Hasson were “all in danger.”

“We have all been doxxed. It is all over the press,” she said. “Lastly, there is the possibility that I have been poisoned.”

Jessica Huseman is Votebeat’s editorial director and is based in Dallas. Contact Jessica at jhuseman@votebeat.org.

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