Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan news organization covering local election administration and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.
Federal marshals escorted the leaders of True the Vote out of a Houston courtroom on Monday morning and into a holding cell. Catherine Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips have been held in contempt of court for refusing to release the name of a person of interest in the defamation and computer hacking case against them, who they claim, without proof, is a confidential FBI informant.
They will remain in jail until they release the name of the man.
It is the latest surprise development in the strange story, which concerns — depending on who’s describing it — a right-wing elections group allegedly defaming a small technology company, or a small technology company whose alleged security flaws were exposed by a right-wing elections group.
Konnech, the election management software company at the center of those claims, filed a federal lawsuit in September alleging that True the Vote’s viral social media campaign targeting the company’s founder and CEO, Eugene Yu, led to personal threats to him and his family and damaged his company’s business.
In podcasts and interviews, Phillips described a dramatic night in early 2021 in a Dallas hotel, where a man he later identified as Mike Hasson revealed what True the Vote has said was hard evidence of Konnech’s alleged influence on the 2020 election.
The involvement of a third man was unknown until a Thursday hearing, when Konnech’s attorney’s pressed Phillips for additional information about what Phillips claimed was an hourslong Konnech research session in Dallas that night. On the stand, Phillips revealed that another “analyst” was present in the room when Hasson allegedly offered evidence he’d uncovered about Konnech, showing the company had stored American poll worker data on a server in China. Neither he nor Engelbrecht would release the third man’s name, saying he was in danger from “drug cartels.”
While True the Vote’s former attorney on the matter, Brock Akers, released Hasson’s name after U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt demanded he do so earlier in the month, True the Vote’s new legal team has chosen a different path. Akers has not appeared in court since providing Hasson’s name. Last week, Engelbrecht and Phillips were represented by Michael Wynne, a different Houston attorney, who told the court Akers was on vacation “on the Mediterranean” and would be withdrawing from the case. Wynne said Akers remained away, on a cruise, on Monday morning.
Phillips and Engelbrecht bring the number of people who have served time in jail related to the case to three. Yu was arrested in his home state of Michigan on Oct. 4 before facing charges in Los Angeles County, where he was briefly held on house arrest. He has now posted bond and returned to Michigan with an ankle monitor.
Yu is facing felony charges of grand theft by embezzlement and conspiracy to commit a crime. The Los Angeles 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. Yu has filed a motion to dismiss the charges, arguing that even if the charges are true, they aren’t criminal. Los Angeles prosecutors have acknowledged receiving an early tip from Phillips.
“I can’t reveal his name,” Engelbrecht told Votebeat in the gallery Monday before the hearing began, acknowledging that would mean time in jail.
Again on Monday, Wynne said that True the Vote never had access to the data in question in the case. “The information was too large — the number of terabytes — for him to physically have taken possession,” he said. “He did not and does not have access.”
“I don’t know that,” Hoyt responded. “And neither do you.”
Wynne entered more than two dozen pages of evidence onto the record late Friday night, including dozens of text messages between Engelbrecht and individuals True the Vote has claimed are FBI agents. They also included two affidavits from Phillips and Engelbrecht and details of Yu’s arrest in Los Angeles.
Hoyt, a Ronald Reagan nominee, was unmoved by the submission, calling it irrelevant given its failure to identify the man at the center of Thursday’s hearing.
Their irrelevance did not matter to True the Vote’s followers, who offered screenshots of the text messages on social media as proof of Engelbrecht and Phillips’ poor treatment at the hands of federal officers. “This is what tyranny looks like,” one said, in a post shared by Phillips. Another said that if the judge sent the pair to jail, “I swear before God we are going to raise up such a cry to Heaven that the entire nation will hear it.”
In its own posts this weekend, True the Vote told supporters they expected to be jailed. “Hi friends. Writing on the eve of what appears to be jail time,” the group’s account posted on Truth Social on Sunday night. “Still praying it doesn’t happen. But if it does, be assured we won’t be gone forever.”
While Wynne told the court he’d placed calls to various offices at the FBI, there was no indication the agency had responded. Three weeks ago, said Dean Pamphilis, an attorney representing Konnech in the case, the agency made clear it had no confidentiality interest in the case. True the Vote has so far presented no evidence that is false.
“We need to know his name,” Pamphilis said. “We haven’t heard any testimony that his confidentiality status has anything to do with this case. It’s a complete red herring they’ve manufactured to keep us from the truth.”
Pamphilis said it is clear from True the Vote’s refusal to name him that this man is “more important” than Hasson, given they were more willing to openly identify Hasson by name.
On Friday, Wynne moved to seal a photo of a person Konnech’s attorney believed to be Hasson. Pamphilis and Nathan Richardson, the second Konnech attorney, showed both Phillips and Engelbrecht the photo on the stand on Thursday, though both claimed not to be able to identify the man in the photo.
Wynne said he’d made the motion out of “an abundance of caution” because he worried about the privacy of the individual, whomever he may be.
“How do we know he’s anybody?” Hoyt said.
“Well, my contention is that he is somebody,” said Wynne.
Hoyt denied the request.
At the end of the hearing, which lasted less than 20 minutes, Hoyt ordered two marshals to take Engelbrecht and Phillips into custody. The men, who’d been sitting in the gallery joking familiarly with the court’s bailiffs, stepped through the swinging doors and escorted the pair to a holding cell.
Two hours into their stay in jail, True the Vote posted a call for donations on Truth Social.
“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. John 8:32,” the organization posted. “To join us in cause, please donate here.”