L.A. prosecutor put on leave over questionable case sparked by election conspiracy theories
By James Queally,2022-11-23
A Los Angeles County deputy district attorney has been placed on administrative leave for his role in the questionable prosecution of a Michigan software executive that may have been sparked by conspiracy theorists who deny the validity of the 2020 presidential election.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Eric Neff’s leave comes in the wake of Dist. Atty. George Gascón's decision to drop charges against Eugene Yu, chief executive of Michigan-based Konnech, according to three sources with knowledge of the situation. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss a personnel matter.
Yu's firm, which has contracts with L.A. election officials, had been accused of storing data about poll workers on Chinese servers.
Gascón announced Yu's arrest Oct. 4 , claiming that the 51-year-old chief executive had endangered the personal information — including Social Security numbers — of an unknown number of L.A. County poll workers by storing it on an overseas server.
At the news conference, Gascón did not explain what crime Yu had committed but said the firm had violated its contract with the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s office.
A week later, Yu was charged with embezzlement and conspiracy, as prosecutors alleged that the contract violation was tantamount to theft of public funds. But by November, prosecutors had dropped all charges against Yu.
During his initial news conference, Gascón did not mention that his office's investigation was sparked by a conversation with one of the founders of True the Vote, a Texas-based nonprofit that has fomented conspiracy theories about the 2020 presidential election.
While Gascón stressed that he had no evidence that any alleged misconduct by Konnech or Yu had an impact on an election or involved ballot counting, the news conference sent a shock through the conservative media ecosystem.
Former President Trump praised Gascón and called on him to dig further into the 2020 election, while far-right commentator Charlie Kirk said Yu's arrest was confirmation of “another election integrity ‘conspiracy theory.'"
True the Vote was integral to the debunked documentary "2,000 Mules," which claimed to prove that Joe Biden and the Democratic Party stole the 2020 election from Trump through ballot harvesting. True the Vote this year publicly accused Konnech of taking part in a Chinese government operation to influence U.S. elections. Konnech has since sued the group in federal court for defamation.
The extent of True the Vote's involvement in the investigation remains unclear. Co-founder Gregg Phillips initially claimed that he played a "small role" in the probe. Gascón did not acknowledge True the Vote's involvement in the case at his initial news conference but days later issued a statement confirming that a "report" from Phillips had sparked the probe.
In sworn testimony in the Texas defamation case, Phillips said he was first contacted by Neff in July. Phillips said a district attorney's office investigator was present at an August event hosted by True the Vote that was dubbed "The Pit."
The event was attended by QAnon faithful and Kari Lake, a Republican running for Arizona governor who has raised questions about the state's election integrity, without evidence. The event marked the first time that True the Vote claimed Konnech had provided the personal information of about 1.8 million poll workers to the Chinese government.
In the wake of the Pit, Yu and his family began receiving death threats, according to Konnech's lawsuit. A number of election offices across the U.S. cut ties with Konnech after Gascón filed charges. The L.A. County Registrar's Office was not among them, despite Gascón's allegation that the office was the victim of a crime.
During the Oct. 4 news conference, Gascón amplified some of True the Vote's claims that Konnech had stored information overseas — an allegation that was conspicuously absent from a criminal complaint a week later charging Yu with embezzlement and conspiracy.
During an October hearing seeking to jail Yu, Neff claimed without evidence that the "data breach" was among the largest in U.S. history.
Gascón has not explained the discrepancy, and his office has declined to answer most questions about the case. The office declined to comment on Neff's status because it is a personnel matter.
Neff did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday and has previously referred questions to Gascón's chief spokeswoman, Tiffiny Blacknell; she did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment on Neff's status.
Blacknell previously said the office decided to dismiss the case against Yu due to concerns about the pace of the investigation and potential bias in the presentation of evidence.
The case is being reevaluated, according to Blacknell, who said earlier this month that after the charges were brought, upper management in the district attorney's office became aware of "irregularities in how the case was presented." She did not offer specifics.
The district attorney's Public Integrity Division, which filed the case against Yu, this week was brought under the control of Gascón's chief of staff, Joseph Iniguez, according to a document reviewed by The Times. Blacknell did not respond to questions about whether the move was linked to the handling of the Konnech case.
The district attorney's office has previously sought to downplay True the Vote's role in the investigation. It remains unclear if prosecutors used any evidence provided by the group or if Phillips testified before a grand jury that returned an indictment against Yu earlier this year.
Phillips has said under oath that he testified before an L.A. grand jury. He and the group's leader, Catherine Engelbrecht, testified that they spoke repeatedly with officials in the district attorney's office over the summer.
According to court records, prosecutors alleged that Konnech employees “sent personal identifying information of Los Angeles County election workers to third-party software developers who assisted with creating and fixing” its proprietary PollChief software. Those developers were based in China, according to the complaint.
PollChief is used by election officials in several major cities to register and schedule poll workers, according to Konnech.
A project manager for Konnech said Chinese administrators had “‘superadministration’ privileges for all PollChief clients,” according to the complaint. It is unclear what such privileges entail.
Times Staff Writer Sarah D. Wire in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times .
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