LA DA Gascon Places Deputy Who Led Investigation into China-Linked Election Software Company on Leave

On October 4, when we were one of the first news organizations to report on the arrest of Eugene Yu, a Chinese national and CEO of election software company Konnech, for allegedly storing election worker and other data on servers in China, we expressed surprise that Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon was the one prosecuting the case. After all, Konnech was suing True the Vote for defamation for alleging essentially the same thing.

The arrest was a huge embarrassment to a New York Times reporter who’d published a piece just one day prior about a “small group of election deniers” who pushed a “conspiracy theory” that “a small American election software company, Konnech, had secret ties to the Chinese Communist Party and had given the Chinese government backdoor access to personal data about two million poll workers in the United States.”

Less than two months later, the charges have been dropped (but are allegedly still being investigated), and Gascon has placed the lead Deputy District Attorney on the case on administrative leave – the fact of that leave, of course, being leaked to Gascon’s favored reporter at the LA Times, along with insinuation that the Deputy DA had acted unprofessionally or improperly. The headline:

“L.A. prosecutor put on leave over questionable case sparked by election conspiracy theories”

Within the article, and another article published on November 16, it’s clear that Gascon’s trying to distance himself from the entire episode and throw Deputy DA Eric Neff under the bus. Gascon’s spokesperson Tiffiny Blacknell issued a statement to the Times:

“We knew that the arrest of Mr. Yu would quickly become publicly known and it could raise suspicion about the security of the election. We also knew that some members of the public would worry that votes were stolen or miscounted — which has never been at issue — or have legitimate concerns about data privacy,” she said, adding that much of the information Gascón provided at the news conference came from “employees closest to this investigation.”

Blacknell’s statement indicated that office leadership found problems with the evidence after the arrest was announced.

“During the course of this prosecution, upper-level management became aware of irregularities in how the case was presented,” she said.

It’s more likely that Gascon underestimated how quickly the story would tear through the conservative media sphere, that his prosecution might hamper Konnech’s case against True The Vote, and that he could be seen as supporting “election deniers.”

In addition, Sean Hassett, who was then heading the Public Integrity Division (PID), the division in charge of the prosecution, was rebuked by Judge Kathleen Kennedy during a 2021 corruption case. Kennedy said Hassett was “just tripping over [his] feet and falling on [his face].” Gascon has a history of selecting his political allies to lead important divisions instead of people who are actually competent, so it’s not surprising that he chose Hassett to lead one of the most important divisions in his office, or that he chose to punish someone else when he needed a fall guy.

Gascon’s attempt to say that he just didn’t really know what was happening at the time of the arrest and to imply that some kind of conspiracy theorist hijacked an important office and forced an arrest just don’t hold water, especially when viewed in light of concurrent events.

On October 4 Gascon seemed pretty confident in the sequence of events during the press conference to announce Yu’s arrest, where he was flanked by his longtime friend (from his LAPD days) and head of the LADA’s Bureau of Investigation, Chief Robert Arcos, and Hassett. Even Joseph Iniguez, Gascon’s chief flunky and former political opponent (who, having never tried a felony case, was promoted to chief of staff upon Gascon’s election), got in on the press conference.

If he wasn’t confident, he was at least trying to hog the spotlight for what he thought would be a consequential prosecution. At that time Gascon said, in part:

My Bureau of Investigation took Yu into custody today with assistance from police from Meridian Township, Michigan.

The investigators have been conducting searches of his home and other Konnech locations in Michigan. At issue here is the theft of personal identifying information of election workers in Los Angeles County. This information is not…related to election material or voter information.

The investigation by my office found probable cause to believe that Konnech allegedly violated this contract by storing critical information that the workers provided on servers in China. We intend to hold all of those responsible for this breach accountable.

So it was Gascon’s Bureau of Investigation, not a separate law enforcement agency, conducting the investigation —  meaning, Gascon couldn’t simply dismiss charges by blaming a different office for some kind of miscommunication.

Arcos then spoke, saying (in part):

As you can imagine, there’s a large amount of evidence that needs to be collected, secured, and transported back to Los Angeles in this case.

Our computer forensics team is highly regarded for their expertise, and is working diligently to secure this evidence. As this investigation continues to unfold, our team remains in constant communication with our District Attorney, and the District Attorney’s office in Ingham County.

The Bureau of Investigation is the fourth largest law enforcement agency in the county, with over 300 employees assigned. We are the largest of the 58 counties in the state. The experience and expertise of the men and women assigned to the Bureau of Investigation is extraordinary. They represent the finest in our profession, and I am extremely proud of their dedicated, relentless, and selfless service to the County of  Los Angeles.

Given Arcos’ confidence in the BOI’s computer forensics team, it’s curious that the reason given by Gascon’s spokesperson for dropping the charges was that it would take months to review the data obtained in the search warrant to determine if criminal charges are warranted and announced that they’d “assembled a new team of investigators with cyber security expertise and an independent expert to review the ‘immense volume of digital data’ it has collected in the case.”

One sentence of the office’s statement stands out now, considering what’s happened since then:

“We are concerned about both the pace of the investigation and the potential bias in the presentation and investigation of the evidence.”

And, this interesting aside in the Times’ November 22 piece:

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 criminal complaint, filed October 13 by LADA Investigator Andrew Stevens and Neff alleged that Konnech was using third-party contractors based in China, in violation of their contract terms, and stated:

Based on evidence recovered from a search warrant executed October 4, 202, the District Attorney’s Office discovered that Konnech employees known and unknown sent personal identifying information of Los Angeles County election workers to third-party software developers who assisted with creating and fixing Konnech’s internal “PollChief” software.

In addition, the complaint stated that Luis Nabergoi, project manager for Konnech’s contract with Los Angeles County, had confirmed back on August 18th, a month and a half prior to the arrest, through a messaging app that “any employee for Chinese contractors working on PollChief software had ‘superadministration’ privileges for all PollChief clients. Mr. Nabergoi described the situation as a ‘huge security issue.’”

In numerous articles about the prosecution, the LA Times downplayed the significance of the superadministrator role, saying it’s unclear exactly what that involves. Former CIA officer Sam Faddis, who isn’t down with any “stolen election” theories, wrote on his Substack:

“An individual with super administration access to a system can do effectively anything inside that system. He or she can delete data, steal data, alter data, change programming, etc. Perhaps most importantly, that individual can cover his or her tracks, because they can potentially also access and alter all security protocols and programs.”

While this series of events was occurring in Los Angeles, the civil case in Texas between Konnech and True The Vote was heating up. True The Vote founder Catherine Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips were held in contempt of court by US District Court Judge Kenneth Hoyt for refusing to name a person who was involved in their investigation of Konnech’s data storage practices, and then jailed on October 31. Hoyt ordered the two to remain jailed until they revealed that person’s name, but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered them released on November 7.

At that time the remainder of the contempt order was kept in place, but on November 22 — just hours before the LA Times’ story on Neff’s suspension published — that three-judge panel from the Fifth Circuit struck down the order in a blistering opinion. In part, the opinion stated that Hoyt “used a temporary restraining order, a preliminary injunction, and a civil-contempt order to litigate the case on Konnech’s behalf” and ordered that “any future appellate proceedings regarding any future contempt orders shall be directed to and decided by this panel.”

Is it possible that the timing of this disclosure about Neff’s administrative leave was meant to blunt any fallout from the Fifth Circuit opinion? Or is it just that Gascon, Hassett, and Arcos weren’t smart enough to realize that this prosecution might help conservatives and bailed once they found out?

Regardless, we will continue to monitor developments in the case and at the LA District Attorney’s office.

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