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Former Houston police captain accused of violent attempt to prove election conspiracy was hired by GOP activist's group

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Former Houston Police captain Mark Aguirre was arrested after allegedly running a man off the road and threatening him at gunpoint in what prosecutors say was an attempt to prove a voter fraud conspiracy theory. Credit: Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

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HOUSTON — A former Houston police captain was arrested after allegedly running a man off the road and threatening him at gunpoint — what prosecutors say was part of an elaborate attempt to find evidence for a false conspiracy theory of widespread voter fraud in Harris County.

Mark Aguirre, who was working on behalf of a powerful Republican megadonor’s group to investigate unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud in Harris County, was arrested Tuesday, according to the Harris County District Attorney’s office.

Prosecutors say Aguirre’s claims were baseless and that he was paid $266,400 by Liberty Center for God and Country, whose CEO is prominent Texas right-wing activist Steven Hotze.

Hotze was among a group of Republicans who unsuccessfully sued to have nearly 127,000 Harris County ballots tossed out this year. Hotze was also among Republicans who tried — and failed — to stop Gov. Greg Abbott from extending early voting during the coronavirus pandemic, a suit for which Aguirre had provided an affidavit, stating that he was involved in an investigation into a “wide-ranging and fraudulent ballot harvesting scheme” in Harris County.

Jared Woodfill, a spokesman and attorney for Hotze, confirmed that the Liberty Center hired a company led by Aguirre to investigate election fraud. The company contracted approximately 20 private investigators to work on claims of fraudulent ballots in Harris County and Texas during the 2020 election. Woodfill said he was aware of Aguirre’s arrest, but had not yet heard Aguirre’s side of the story.

“(Hotze) did not direct or lead any of the investigations,” Woodfill said, noting that Hotze instead sent tips and information to the team for the investigators to decide how to follow up on. "The (Liberty Center) employed the investigation team that looked into the allegations."

Aguirre told authorities he believed the air conditioner technician he threatened Oct. 19 — and who he had surveilled for four days with the help of at least two other unidentified people — was the mastermind of the supposed election fraud scheme and that fake ballots were being transported in the technician’s truck. He told police that he believed the technician had as many as 750,000 fake ballots in his possession, according to an affidavit by the Houston police officer who responded to the incident.

“There were no ballots in the truck,” according to a Harris County district attorney’s office press release. “It was filled with air conditioning parts and tools.”

Aguirre also told authorities that he and other unidentified suspects had set up a “command post” at a Marriott hotel in Pearland for days ahead of the incident. He refused to identify the other people he worked with, according to the Houston police report.

Aguirre ran his SUV in the back of the technician’s truck to get the man to stop and get out, according to a court document describing probable cause for the aggravated assault with a deadly weapon charge. He pointed a handgun at the technician and forced him to the ground, according to the affidavit.

“We are lucky no one was killed,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said in a statement. “His alleged investigation was backward from the start – first alleging a crime had occurred and then trying to prove it happened.”

Aguirre was arrested by Houston police on Tuesday and charged with aggravated assault with a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

Hotze is an active GOP donor and is one of the most prolific culture warriors on the right. He's a fierce opponent of same-sex marriage and was a key figure in the unsuccessful push for the 2017 "bathroom bill" in the Texas Legislature. This summer, he infamously left a voicemail for Abbott’s chief of staff telling him to shoot and kill people protesting the in-custody death of George Floyd.