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Federal appeals court releases True the Vote leaders from jail

Catherine Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips continue to withhold identity of person of interest in defamation case.

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

After spending nearly a week in jail, Catherine Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips — leaders of Texas-based right-wing voting activist group True the Vote — have been released. They’d been held for contempt of court since Halloween, having repeatedly refused to release the name of a man they called a “confidential FBI informant” who is a person of interest in a defamation and hacking case against them. 

The person remains unidentified. 

Their release came after True the Vote’s lawyers appealed the contempt order by federal district Judge Kenneth Hoyt to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, arguing the finding of contempt was in error and the pair should be released from jail. The appeals court granted their release but kept the remainder of Hoyt’s order in place. 

It’s the newest surprise in an unusual case. Konnech, a small election software company based in Michigan, filed a federal lawsuit in September alleging that True the Vote, and Engelbrecht and Phillips, led a social media campaign of allegations involving a Chinese election-meddling conspiracy that damaged its business and prompted threats to its founder, Eugene Yu. 

Yu was arrested shortly afterward, and briefly confined to house arrest, after the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office said Yu and Konnech violated the company’s contract with Los Angeles County by illegally giving contractors in China access to data that was supposed to be stored only in the United States. That case is still pending, and Yu has filed for dismissal of the charges.

In the week since Engelbrecht and Phillips were escorted to federal detention, they have turned their plight into a national public relations and fundraising blitz. Former President Trump, speaking at a rally in Pennsylvania last week, defended Engelbrecht, calling her “incredible” and a “patriot.” 

“And she’s now in a Houston prison along with another great patriot. And you know what they did? They went out and they saw illegal ballot stuffing,” he told the crowd, conflating the Konnech debacle with the “2000 Mules” documentary, a separate True the Vote project. “Can you imagine? They put her in prison. She’s in jail. What a disgrace. Our country’s going to hell in so many different ways.”

Engelbrecht and Phillips were not held in “prison” but rather the Joe Corley Federal Detention Facility, which is a temporary lock-up facility used by the U.S. Marshals and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and is not run by the Bureau of Prisons. Still, they repeatedly claimed to be in “prison” in their many fundraising efforts of the past week. 

The day after their arrest, a True the Vote staff member sent a message to supporters, saying Engelbrecht was in “federal prison.” 

“She wanted me to share something with you that is so profound: while she was waiting in line one of the other inmates looked at her and said: ‘your life is not your own here,’” read the message. 

They have been selling merchandise (including hoodies, hats, mugs and mouse pads) reading “FREEDOM!” along with several verses from the Book of Isaiah.

On Friday, a True the Vote representative appeared on Tucker Carlson to talk about the jailing of the group’s leaders. 

Carlson decried the treatment of Engelbrecht, who he called “not a wacko at all.” He lamented that the court would ask them to give up an informant. “Which they are entitled to keep secret,” he said, “because they are confidential sources, and what they are doing is journalism.” Neither Phillips nor Engelbrecht nor their attorneys have asserted that True the Vote representatives were acting as journalists. 

On Sunday, supporters held a prayer gathering at the detention facility in Conroe where Engelbrecht and Phillips were being held. “They are being jailed for protecting the name of their whistleblower,” read an advertisement for the event spread on right-wing social media. 

Reached by text on Monday after her release, Engelbrecht said she was “hours from home” (Conroe is a 90 minute drive from Engelbrecht’s hometown of Cat Spring) and was not available for an interview. 

“Those who thought that imprisoning Gregg and I would weaken our resolve have gravely miscalculated. It is stronger than ever,” Engelbrecht said in a statement. “We are profoundly grateful for that. We will continue to protect and defend those who do the vital work of election integrity, and we will make sure that their findings become a matter of public record.”

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

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