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LA County drops charges against election software executive, citing 'potential bias'

A man wearing American flag pants casts his ballot at a voting station in Los Angeles on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the LA County district attorney dropped charges against the CEO of Konnech, which makes scheduling software for poll workers.
Ringo H.W. Chiu
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AP
A man wearing American flag pants casts his ballot at a voting station in Los Angeles on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the LA County district attorney dropped charges against the CEO of Konnech, which makes scheduling software for poll workers.

In an abrupt reversal, Los Angeles County has dismissed charges against the chief executive of an election software company, marking the end of a case that prominent election deniers cited as evidence of foul play in American elections.

Eugene Yu, CEO of the Michigan-based firm Konnech, was charged in mid October with illegally storing the personal information of poll workers on Chinese servers, a violation of its contract with LA County. Konnech has provided its PollChief software to cities and counties across the country, including a $2.9 million contract with Los Angeles County.

On Wednesday, the district attorney's office said that it had moved to dismiss the case. A judge in Los Angeles Superior Court granted the motion without prejudice.

"We are concerned about both the pace of the investigation and the potential bias in the presentation and investigation of the evidence," spokesperson Tiffiny Blacknell said in a statement. The county did indicate that it hasn't ruled out refiling the charges after reviewing the evidence, saying it would "assemble a new team, with significant cyber security experience to determine whether any criminal activity occurred."

In a statement, Yu's defense attorney Gary Lincenberg called him an "innocent man," adding. "Mr. Yu's good name was tarnished by false narratives from fringe conspiracy theorists who bragged about enlisting Los Angeles prosecutors to further their political agenda."

In October, the district attorney's office acknowledged to NPR that the investigation began after a tip from Gregg Phillips, a prominent election denier associated with the controversial group True the Vote, which executive produced and provided the basis for the claims in the widely debunked film 2000 Mules.

Phillips has said that the group's interest in Konnech was spurred, in part, by information provided by followers of the far-right conspiracy QAnon and suggested that it was part of a "red Chinese communist op-run against the United States."

Konnech and Yu have consistently denied the district attorney's charges, noting True the Vote's shady affiliations and suggesting that xenophobia is a driving force behind the original probe. Yu immigrated to the U.S. from China in the 1980s and became an American citizen in 1997.

In September, Konnech filed a lawsuit in federal court against True the Vote and alleged that the group had hacked Konnech's data, defaming the company with a xenophobic "smear campaign."

Both Phillips and Catherine Engelbrecht, True the Vote's founder, were recently briefly jailed after refusing to release the name of the suspected hacker.

Catherine Engelbrecht, seen here in 2015, founded the controversial nonprofit True the Vote.
Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Catherine Engelbrecht, seen here in 2015, founded the controversial nonprofit True the Vote.

True the Vote did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Yu's arrest and the controversy surrounding Konnech ahead of the November midterms alarmed the few voting offices across the country that use the company's software. Worried how the arrest could impact voter confidence in a climate where election security is already a top concern for many, at least four jurisdictions stopped using Konnech's software entirely.

In a statement to NPR member station WDET, Detroit city Clerk Janice Winfrey wrote that the city was terminating its contract with Konnech "out of an abundance of caution."

The district attorney in Los Angeles County gave no timeline for when they might make a decision about filing new criminal charges, saying only that they had an "immense volume of digital data" to process, and that it could take months.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Juma Sei
Juma Sei is a 2022-2023 Kroc Fellow at NPR. He is a Sierra Leonean-American from Portland, Oregon, and a 2022 graduate of Yale College.