Investigation: Texas-based ‘True the Vote’ has collected millions but revealed no evidence of widespread fraud

Reveal’s in-depth reporting also found inconsistencies on tax returns and questionable spending – including loans made to its executive director.

By Laura Rice & Yvonne MarquezJune 14, 2022 12:31 pm, ,

The Houston-based group True the Vote has played a big role in what’s been dubbed “the big lie” – the false claim that former President Trump actually won the 2020 election.

A new investigation from Reveal says True the Vote has raised millions with claims it has discovered widespread voting fraud. But it’s never released evidence, and instead there’s evidence that funds are being used for the personal gain of founder and executive director Catherine Engelbrecht and others connected to the organization.

Cassandra Jaramillo, who led the investigation for Reveal, says there are still a lot of questions about the legality of what she’s found at True the Vote but that it’s also not clear whether Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office is committed to following up on the findings and an already-filed lawsuit.

Listen to the interview in the audio player above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: If you search online about True the Vote, you’ll see claims that the organization’s evidence is going to be released soon. Have they released anything thus far?

Cassandra Jaramillo: True the Vote for several years has made the claim that they found voter fraud. They drum up a lot of attention about their lofty claims. And no, I mean, it’s been years and they don’t release this evidence that they claim to have had.

You write that True the Vote’s efforts to find voter fraud evidence has been lucrative. How much money has True the Vote brought in?

In a tax return that the organization provided to Reveal for 2020 – that’s the most recently available tax return that we have from them – they claim to have raised more than $5 million.

You write there’s evidence funds are being used for personal gain. What sort of evidence?

One of the things that we found in our investigation is that their tax returns that they’re required to file as a nonprofit are filled with inconsistencies. It’s really hard to know exactly how the nonprofit is spending its donations.

One of the key findings, though, is that we know that founder Catherine Engelbrecht has been given loans from the nonprofits’ donations and companies connected to her and a longtime board member by the name of Gregg Phillips have also gotten contracts with the organization. As board members, that’s not necessarily a good practice to have with a charity.

Now, one thing that’s important to understand, but not get too in the weeds with tax law, is that the state of Texas says that a director of a nonprofit cannot receive a loan. Catherine Engelbrecht is both a director and an employee of the nonprofit. And so, it’s a question there that would be up to an oversight agency — whether the Texas attorney general’s office or the IRS — to determine why this loan was given, was it proper, and ultimately, did it violate state law?

What does True the Vote claim to be doing with donations?

What we know from court records in 2020 was that True the Vote claimed to be working with a company called OPSEC Group, which was going to do data analysis to try to find tide-turning voter fraud. However, the voter data that they were trying to get, they never were able to obtain. So it’s unclear what methodology they were hoping to use.

The other important thing to know about OPSEC Group was that it’s a company tied to Gregg Phillips, a longtime board member, and we know that it received at least $750,000.

Some experts you spoke with suggested the Texas attorney general should investigate. There’s already a donor lawsuit against the group that could trigger that. Any word from Ken Paxton?

So far, Ken Paxton’s office is very much aware that a donor has alleged fraud against True the Vote. That case was ultimately dismissed in Austin County. It is on appeal. But one of the key arguments made by the defense was that the proper venue to investigate True the Vote is the AG’s office. I’ve been trying to get some clarity from the office about if it has an investigation. I haven’t been able to get answers.

We also know that Ken Paxton’s office has in its possession the 2019 tax return, which is at the heart of our findings, that had some of the largest discrepancies between a potential $113,000 loan to Catherine [Engelbrecht], which is on the IRS file. The version they gave to us isn’t there.

And so it’s a question that I’m curious why AG Ken Paxton doesn’t want to release whatever 2019 tax return they have on file, but that was a pretty strong denial from his office to not release that tax return, as well as other email communications involving True the Vote. He cited “attorney-client privilege” in that decision.

Ken Paxton was citing “attorney-client privilege”?

Yes. Yes, indeed. There was an exemption used on certain communications that they claim to fall under “attorney-client privilege.” Now, it’s a challenge on our end to know whether that’s the case or not, because you don’t know what you don’t know. I have no idea what email communications were happening in the office among attorneys deciding whether or not to bring a case on True the Vote – that would be protected from what I understand from experts. But other stuff, shouldn’t.

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