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GOP donor Steven F. Hotze described botched vote fraud probe in recording, prosecutors say in Texas court filing

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On Oct. 17, 2020, influential GOP donor Steven F. Hotze made an urgent request during a phone call with a top federal prosecutor in Texas, according to a court filing Friday by the Houston district attorney’s office.

Hotze claimed that private investigators funded by his nonprofit group had been trailing a mysterious white van as it shuttled phony ballots around the city in an effort to rig the upcoming election. He asked if federal authorities would help stop the van and apprehend its driver, but he added that one of his hard-nosed investigators was prepared to do the job himself, according to the filing by prosecutors in Harris County that included a transcript of the exchange.

“In fact, he told me last night, ‘hell … the guy’s gonna have a wreck tomorrow night. I’m going to run into him and I’m gonna make a citizen’s arrest,” Hotze told the U.S. attorney for the southern district of Texas, Ryan Patrick, a Trump appointee, who recorded the conversation.

Two days after the call, the private investigator Hotze had named ran a white van driven by an air-conditioning repairman off the road in Houston and held the driver at gunpoint during a futile search for forged ballots, county prosecutors allege.

Police have said the man was “innocent.” His truck contained repair parts.

The filing Friday illuminates one of the most extreme tactics that far-right groups have employed in an effort to substantiate former president Donald Trump’s unproven allegations of widespread voting fraud in the election he lost. Groups have tried to gain access to sensitive election equipment, pushed for audits of the 2020 election by handpicked outside groups and recruited volunteers to scrutinize local election officials, sometimes leading to threats of violence.

The disclosure of the call transcript came in an ongoing criminal case brought by the district attorney’s office that charges Hotze and the private investigator with assault with a deadly weapon and unlawful restraint in the alleged ramming. Prosecutors disclosed the transcript in a filing notifying the court that they intend to use it as evidence against Hotze.

The filing marks the first time prosecutors have publicly revealed evidence to support the charges against Hotze, who was not at the crash scene. His nonprofit Liberty Center for God and Country paid $261,000 for the election fraud probe, a Houston police report stated.

The recorded conversation also appears to contradict statements Hotze made earlier this year during a sworn deposition separately obtained by The Washington Post. The deposition was taken in a lawsuit filed by the air-conditioning repairman, David Lopez-Zuniga, against Hotze and the nonprofit. In the deposition, Hotze insisted that he had no knowledge of the surveillance or investigation of Lopez-Zuniga.

“I did not know about any investigation about David Lopez at all,” Hotze said during questioning that occurred months before his April 20 criminal indictment. He also said in his deposition that he had not talked to any law enforcement official about the investigation.

In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, Hotze received regular briefings about the private investigation from a former Houston police officer hired to run the probe, he said in his deposition. During weekly calls, he said, the ex-cop, Mark Aguirre, detailed his pursuit of a sensational theory: Democrats were using undocumented Hispanic children to forge signatures on hundreds of thousands of phony ballots to rig the election in Harris County, home to Houston.

“From what he told me, it appeared he was hot on a trail,” Hotze said in the deposition.

Hotze and Aguirre have not yet been arraigned or entered a plea to the charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and unlawful restraint, but Hotze has said publicly that he is not guilty.

Jared Woodfill, an attorney for Hotze, said the statements in the deposition were not at odds with the remarks in the call transcript. He declined to elaborate.

The transcript of Hotze’s private phone conversation is notable not only for its content but also because authorities said the call was recorded by the former U.S. attorney. Patrick is a son of Texas’s Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has received nearly $100,000 in political campaign donations from Hotze since 2005, state campaign records show.

The younger Patrick, who resigned in February 2021 after President Biden took office and now works at a law firm, declined to comment Friday about the transcript of the phone call.

Hotze has pledged more investigations. In early April he hosted a sold-out fundraiser to help bankroll them through his nonprofit. The keynote speaker at the event was My Pillow chief executive Mike Lindell, a prominent promoter of baseless claims — rejected by court after court — that Trump lost in a rigged election.

Hotze, 71, who runs a natural-health and hormone replacement clinic, has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to conservative candidates in Texas. He has filed lawsuits, with mixed results, seeking to limit mail-in voting in the state and to dismiss ballots submitted via drive-through voting sites in the 2020 presidential election.

Woodfill said the recording did not capture the complete conversation between Hotze and Patrick. “The Ryan Patrick tape further demonstrates that the indictment of Dr. Hotze was politically motivated and that Dr. Hotze is innocent of any criminal or civil wrongdoing.”

Aguirre, a 65-year-old former Houston police captain, was charged in December 2020 and on April 20 was indicted by a grand jury, a required step in a felony case in Texas. An attorney for Aguirre declined to comment. “I’m not trying my case in the paper,” Aguirre, who was released on $30,000 bail, told The Post in a brief phone interview on Dec. 16, 2020. “I don’t care about public opinion. I’m trying my case against these corrupt sons of [expletives].”

In a statement to The Post, District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat who was first elected in 2016, called the voter fraud operation a “misguided fantasy.”

“The defendants were charged as part of a bizarre scheme that crossed the line from dirty politics to violent crime and we are lucky no one was killed,” she said Friday. “The entire plan was backward from the start, alleging massive voter fraud occurred and then trying to prove it happened.”

Friday’s filing did not specify how or when authorities had obtained a record of the 2020 phone call, and the district attorney’s office declined to answer detailed questions about the transcript. The filing stated that it was an “informal transcript” that would be followed by a certified version.

In September 2020, as Trump was floating claims that the presidential election would be rigged, Aguirre and a team of other investigators set out to find voter fraud in Harris County, with funding from Hotze’s nonprofit, court records show.

By mid-October the investigators had set their sights on Lopez-Zuniga, setting up a command post at a hotel near his mobile home and tracking his movements for four days before the alleged assault, police have said.

During his call with the U.S. attorney, Hotze offered an explanation for why private investigators were tracking the white van, according to the transcript. “We’ve surveilled them for the last two nights,” he said, according to the transcript.

Investigators had spotted the van outside the apartment complex of a Harris County Democratic political operative they were surveilling, he said. They followed the van to a mobile home park where boxes were moved between the truck and a building behind it, Hotze said. Later, the same truck stopped at a post office, he said, suggesting that ballots were being dropped in the mail.

“They literally have boxes with thousands of votes in it, and they’re just taking these down and voting them,” he added. “I mean, this is the way these guys operate, Ryan. The criminal ring is so incredible.”

During the call, Hotze repeatedly referred to the truck’s owner by the last name of “Perez.” The district attorney’s office declined to answer a question Friday about who that was.

Hotze asked Patrick if he could dispatch a “federal marshal” to help Aguirre “capture” the purported phony ballots, according to the transcript. “Can you help out at all?” Hotze asked.

Patrick demurred, saying that he had no control over federal marshals and that his office would need to establish probable cause — and possibly get approval from Justice Department prosecutors in Washington — to take such a step. It is not clear from the filing whether any action was taken.

During the call, Hotze expressed confidence that Aguirre, whom he named, would crack the case without help from law enforcement, according to the transcript. Aguirre, he said, had “enough balls that he would just, that he would go in and make a citizen’s arrest.” He added that Aguirre would probably extract a confession from the driver of the truck “in five minutes,” in part by threatening to get him and his family deported, the transcript shows.

“He’s like a bull dog,” he said of Aguirre. Hotze cited Aguirre’s experience as a captain with the Houston police, claiming he had taken down drug cartels. “The only difference is instead of dealing with drugs they are dealing with ballots.”

Aguirre left the Houston Police Department in 2003, according to news reports, after he ordered the mass arrest of nearly 300 people in the parking lot of a retail store, some of them families on shopping trips, as part of a crackdown on drag racing. The roundup led to multiple lawsuits against the city, and the city paid at least $840,000 to settle some of the cases, according to reports.

Aguirre also was charged criminally with official oppression, a state statute that covers abuses of power by public officials. A jury acquitted him, and after that Aguirre appealed his firing and was allowed to resign before he launched his career as a licensed private investigator, his attorney has told The Post.

Police have said that on Oct. 16, the day before Hotze’s call to the federal prosecutor, Aguirre contacted a lieutenant in the Texas attorney general’s office and unsuccessfully tried to persuade him to “conduct a traffic stop” of a voter fraud suspect. When the lieutenant declined, Aguirre allegedly responded that he “would conduct the traffic stop himself and make a citizen’s arrest,” according to a police report.

On Oct. 19, 2020, Aguirre rammed Lopez-Zuniga’s cargo truck and detained him during his commute to work, according to a police report and prosecutors.

When police responded to the scene, Aguirre told them that Lopez-Zuniga was part of a massive voter fraud scheme involving 750,000 mail-in ballots and that he was transporting ballots forged by undocumented Hispanic children whose fingerprints couldn’t be traced, police stated.

Aguirre directed them to Lopez-Zuniga’s mobile home and a shed behind it where he claimed the forged ballots were being stored.

Inside the mobile home, police found only “a family conducting ordinary business,” according to a Houston police detective who also gave a deposition in the lawsuit against Hotze and his nonprofit.

“There was kids in the trailer,” said John Varela, the detective. “And one child was on Zoom, you know, going to school. And I think a young lady was in there cooking. And they were just an ordinary family.”

The shed, Varela said, contained air conditioning equipment.

“He [Aguirre] gave me a couple of people’s names to look into. He gave me some other pieces of evidence that I — that I looked into regarding the voter fraud, but I wasn’t able to corroborate anything that he said,” Varela said.

Aguirre was deposed in Lopez-Zuniga’s lawsuit, but by then he already had been arrested and invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against incriminating himself.

During his deposition on Jan. 4, Hotze said he didn’t know anything about the investigation into Lopez-Zuniga.

Hotze gave the same two-word response when an attorney asked him if knew what led Aguirre to suspect Lopez-Zuniga and whether he knew about the surveillance of Lopez-Zuniga: “No sir,” he said, according to a transcript.

Hotze said he had no written communications about Lopez-Zuniga and wasn’t aware of him until news reports of the incident on the road.

“Never heard of Lopez before,” he said when asked if he had any documents that mentioned Lopez-Zuniga.

When Lopez-Zuniga’s attorney, Dicky Grigg, asked if Aguirre had ever mentioned Lopez-Zuniga, Hotze responded: “Never did.”

Hotze acknowledged during the deposition that Aguirre was mistaken about Lopez-Zuniga. “Whatever Officer Aguirre thought he was going to find, didn’t find anything,” Hotze said. “He had a dry run. Let’s put it that way. … Whatever his assessment was, apparently was incorrect.”

Lopez-Zuniga’s attorney also asked Hotze if he wanted to apologize to his client. “Let Mr. Aguirre apologize,” he answered. “I have no responsibility.”

Hotze’s nonprofit paid Aguirre $211,000 on the day after the alleged assault, according to a police report, which said the group had previously made $25,000 payments on Sept. 22 and Oct. 9.

Hotze has continued to raise money to hunt for election fraud.

“A criminal element in our society has developed a well-organized vote fraud scheme that they are using to turn Texas blue,” a page on the website for Hotze’s health clinic stated while advertising the April fundraiser, called the Freedom Gala. The website urged donations ranging from $50 to $20,000 per person to the Liberty Center to continue to “hire private detectives to investigate, identify, and expose the criminal vote fraud scheme in Harris County and across Texas.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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