L.A. County D.A. sued over prosecution allegedly sparked by election conspiracy theories

Los Angeles, California-May 25, 2023-On Thursday, May 25, 2023, District Attorney Gascon announced the exoneration of Daniel Saldana, who was wrongly convicted of attempted murder of six people in 1990. He was released from prison after 33 years behind bars. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The head of a Michigan software company filed a lawsuit Thursday accusing Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón of targeting him in a bungled prosecution last year that was almost entirely based on the word of election deniers and conspiracy theorists.

Eugene Yu, the chief executive of a 21-employee business known as Konnech, accused Gascón and the district attorney's office of multiple civil rights violations, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress, according to the 86-page complaint.

Yu was arrested in Michigan in October and indicted on charges that he compromised the personal information of L.A. County poll workers by storing data on Chinese servers. In the months before Yu's arrest, Konnech had become the subject of unfounded allegations that it was working with the Chinese government to influence U.S. elections.

Many of those claims were pushed by True the Vote, a Texas-based group that traffics in conspiracy theories denying the legitimacy of the 2020 election. The organization funded and appeared in the film “2000 Mules” by right-wing provocateur Dinesh D’Souza, which purported to prove that then-President Trump lost his bid for a second term because of coordinated ballot box stuffing by Democrats.

A little over a month after Gascón announced the arrest, which drew praise from former President Trump and other right-wing election deniers, the case against Yu collapsed.

After initially denying True the Vote had any involvement in the investigation, the district attorney's office acknowledged that a tip from the group's co-founder, Gregg Phillips, sparked the inquiry into Yu. Phillips has also said he testified before the grand jury. Even though the group's election-related claims had been reviewed by several state attorney generals and the FBI with no charges filed, L.A. County prosecutors decided to pursue the case.

Gascón's office dismissed the initial indictment that was linked to True the Vote and filed new embezzlement and conspiracy charges against Yu, but those were also dropped in early November. The lead prosecutor, Eric Neff, was placed on administrative leave a week later.

At the time, the district attorney's office said it was concerned about the pace of the investigation and potential bias in the presentation of evidence. A spokeswoman did not elaborate on the nature or source of the bias.

In the lawsuit, Yu claims Gascón's botched prosecution led nearly half of Konnech's clients to end their contracts with the company and cost him roughly $80 million. The Yu family has also been the subject of a litany of violent threats, according to the lawsuit, which claims someone also left dead animals outside the family's home after news of his arrest broke.

The L.A. County Registrar-Recorder's office — which would have been the victim in the case brought by L.A. County prosecutors — never cut ties with Konnech. Mike Sanchez, a spokesman for the office, told The Times last year it had received no evidence that anyone's information had been compromised. The office entered a contract with Konnech to use the company's PollChief software for "storage and management of election worker and voting location data" in October 2020, an agreement that will run through next year's presidential election, Sanchez said.

Read more: How did Gascón end up launching a criminal probe sparked by far-right election conspiracy theories?

The district attorney's office "maliciously and recklessly relied on and knowingly aligned themselves with the Election Deniers and their further discredited and utterly false conspiracy theories," according to the suit.

Konnech’s PollChief software was used by counties across the country to register and schedule poll workers, and has nothing to do with tallying ballots, according to the company.

“Defendants knew or should have known that the Election Deniers and the information they provided were unreliable, not credible, untrustworthy and could not serve as a basis for a finding of probable cause," the suit read.

The complaint names Gascón, L.A. County, Neff and district attorney's office investigator Andrew Stevens as defendants. Stevens traveled to an event called "The Pit" in the Arizona desert last year, where True the Vote and other election deniers broadcast their allegations against Konnech, according to the suit.

Tiffiny Blacknell, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said she could not comment on pending litigation. She declined to answer a question about Neff's status with the office. Calls and e-mails seeking comment from Neff and Stevens were not returned on Thursday. A spokesman for True the Vote noted the group was “not a party to this suit and thus cannot comment on it.”

Konnech had also filed a defamation suit against True the Vote last year, but dropped its claim in April. In a statement, the company's attorney, Dean Pamphilis, said Konnech moved to dismiss that case after winning injunctions against True the Vote so it could "focus now on its lawsuit against the L.A. D.A.’s Office for its egregious violations of Konnech’s constitutional rights."

The lawsuit alleges that L.A. County prosecutors not only used election deniers as witnesses against Yu, but also hired two people closely tied to the movement to help with the initial search of Yu’s home and Konnech’s offices.

Harry Haury and Nate Cain, the CEO and the founder of cybersecurity business Cain & Associates, respectively, were brought on as forensic investigators to accompany and assist law enforcement as it reviewed data seized from Konnech, according to the suit. Both men have deep ties to the "Stop the Steal" movement.

Haury spoke at the Pit, announcing that he believed "any Chinese nationalized citizen is a risk." He also testified before the L.A. County grand jury, according to the lawsuit. Cain is running for Congress in West Virginia, and both have raised money for True the Vote before. The duo were also part of a little-known team of cybersecurity experts that helped analyze the 2020 election for some of Trump’s closest allies in the weeks after Trump lost.

Haury and Cain received ongoing access to Konnech’s confidential business data, which included L.A. County’s poll worker data as well as privileged communications between Yu, Konnech and their attorneys, the complaint alleges, adding that they have not returned that information and have instead threatened to release it publicly.

Haury and Cain did not respond to requests for comment Thursday. Blacknell did not respond to a question about how the district attorney's office vets contractors.

Prosecutors have also refused to return any of the electronic devices they took from Konnech when they searched the company's Okemos, Mich., offices last year. Although prosecutors said they were going to re-evaluate charges against Yu after dismissing the case in November, the office has provided no updates on the case.

It remains unclear what, if any, evidence the district attorney's office possesses against Yu that isn't connected to the election denial movement. Transcripts of the grand jury hearing where Yu was indicted last year remain sealed.

Prosecutors tossed the initial indictment that would have relied on True the Vote's information and later filed new charges of embezzlement against Yu, claiming his violation of a contract promise not to store information outside the country was tantamount to a theft of public funds. It remains unclear if Yu actually stored data overseas.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.