Politics & Government

Bladen County operative ‘told us what we were to say’ at hearing, worker testifies

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Election fraud investigation

Read more about the investigation into the 9th Congressional District

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Note: The State Board of Elections is holding hearings Monday and Tuesday that could resolve the disputed race in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. This story will be updated throughout Monday’s hearing to reflect the latest developments.

Update, 5:45 p.m.

McCrae Dowless, the Bladen County political operative at the heart of the Ninth District scandal, will not testify in this week’s hearing.

He was called to testify at about 5:20 p.m. Board chairman Bob Cordle said that if he compelled Dowless to testify, Dowless could get immunity from criminal prosecution for anything he discusses.

The board can take “negative inferences” about Dowless’ actions because of his refusal to testify, Cordle said.

Dowless did not speak. His attorney said that Dowless was appearing before the board because he had been subpoenaed to attend, but their position is that if he testifies, he should receive immunity.

His attorney advised Dowless not to take the stand unless he was compelled to do so.

McCready attorney Marc Elias said they should have the right to put Dowless on the stand and question him. Dowless would then be allowed to plead the Fifth Amendment to avoid self-incrimination if he so chose.

The board went into closed session to discuss the issue with their lawyers. The hearing must end at 5:45 p.m., board chair Bob Cordle said, limiting what they can do.

Voter says Democratic-aligned PAC collected her ballot

Precious Hall, a Bladen County resident, testified that she handed over a completed ballot to Lola Wooten and Sandra Goins, affiliated with the Democratic-aligned Bladen County Improvement Association.

“Ballot harvesting,” as collecting absentee ballots is known, is illegal in North Carolina.

Hall said that she filled out her ballot on her own, was witnessed by Goins (who she knows as “Squeaky”) and Wooten, and then sealed the ballot and gave it to the women.

McCready’s attorney stressed that she voted her own choices and her vote was received and recorded by the stat

“You voted freely for the candidates of your choice?” McCready attorney Marc Elias asked Hall.

“Yes,” she said.

But Mark Harris’ attorney, David Freedman, said Hall’s testimony was evidence that illegal ballot-harvesting wasn’t limited to one side.

“Ms. Wooten took your ballot?” he asked.

“Yes,” Hall answered.

Voter turned over blank ballot, she says

Kimberly Sue Robinson testified Monday that she gave a blank ballot to two women working for McCrae Dowless.

Robinson testified that she signed the ballot, but did not fill out any choices or seal the envelope.
“I was told if I didn’t fill it out, it would get filled out for me,” she said. “I was not familiar with the politics.”

Robinson said she had turned over her ballot to Dowless’ workers “a couple” of times before. She said Dowless did not pay her for her ballot.

“I’ve known McCrae from the past, and I trusted him,” she said. “I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong.”

She had filled in ballots in the past at Dowless’ suggestion, but wouldn’t always follow his recommendations: “Not necessarily, because I got my own opinion.”

Hearing to end at 6 p.m.

Bob Cordle, state Board of Elections chair, said today’s hearing will break at 6 p.m. and restart at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.

“We’ll go as late as we can (tomorrow) and try to finish,” he said. The hearing could last through Wednesday, board staff have said.

Did Britt destroy ballots?

Mark Harris attorney David Freedman pressed witness Lisa Britt about whether she ever destroyed any ballots, saw any ballots destroyed or filled in any improper votes for Harris.

Britt said no to all questions.

Freedman also sought to minimize the number of absentee ballots potentially tainted. Britt said she picked up about 35 to 40 absentee ballots, which is illegal under N.C. law. About half of those were already properly signed and witnessed, while Britt or another Dowless worker improperly signed the other 15 to 20.

Harris’ unofficial margin of victory is 905 votes.

Lisa Britt throws up her hands as she answers a question by by attorney Marc Elias during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation Monday, Feb. 18, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Britt earlier testified that she improperly voted on several peoples’ ballots, filling in down-ballot races for Republicans. Freedman asked if she had ever filled in a vote for Harris, or if she only did so for local, down-ballot races.

“The names you filled in had nothing to do with Dr. Harris’ race?” Freedman asked. “You didn’t submit one vote the voter had not intended to vote for Dr. Harris?”

Britt said that was correct.

“You didn’t change a vote or put a vote in for Dr. Harris?” Freedman asked again later.

“No sir,” said Britt.

Cross-examination of Britt

Under questioning by McCready’s attorneys, Lisa Britt said she couldn’t say for sure that no ballots were destroyed by McCrae Dowless.

The sometimes meandering cross-examination of Britt — the first witness of about 80 in the case — by Marc Elias lasted more than an hour, at times growing combative. Elias pressed Britt for more specifics on the vote-collecting scheme, but she disputed several affidavits from voters, including one from a voter that said she handed over an unsealed, unsigned ballot to Britt.

Elias asked if Britt knew for sure that Dowless turned in all the ballots he collected, and she said no. She didn’t personally see him during the week.

“He could have taken them and thrown them out?” Elias said.

“Yeah, I guess he could have,” Britt said.

Pressed on why she trusted Dowless even when there were indications his tactics were questionable, Britt said she trusted him as a father.

“There’s a lot of things that you would kind of place trust in from someone that’s your father figure,” Britt said. “I didn’t think my father would send me to do something illegal.”

Britt recalls meeting with Dowless

Lisa Britt testified that after the investigation, McCrae Dowless gathered her and other election workers he’d employed at his Bladen County house.

“As long as we all stick together we’ll all be fine, because they don’t have anything on us,” she said Dowless told them.

Dowless told them to say he never directed anyone to collect ballots, Britt said. That wasn’t true, she testified.

And Thursday, Dowless gave Britt and other workers a piece of paper telling them what to say on the stand, Britt said.

The paper read: “I can tell you that I haven’t done anything wrong in the election and McCrae Dowless has never told me to do anything wrong, and to my knowledge he has never done anything wrong, but I am taking the 5th Amendment because I don’t have an attorney and I feel like you will try to trip me up. I am taking the 5th.”

“He told us that is what we were to say at the hearing today,” Britt said.

But she added that she doesn’t think Harris did anything wrong or knew about Dowless’ ballot collection.

“You’ve got one innocent person in this whole thing...and that’s Mr. Mark Harris,” Britt ended her testimony. The hearing is in recess until 2 p.m.

Lisa Britt answers a question by executive director of the Board of Elections Kim Strach during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation Monday morning, Feb. 18, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Britt says she falsely signed ballots as witness

Bladen County resident Lisa Britt testified further about Dowless’ ballot-collection operation in the 2018 election, saying she personally collected ballots, worked with others doing the same, and falsely signed ballots as a witness.

She also met Mark Harris, she said, at a peanut festival parade, during hurricane relief and other public functions. She said she doesn’t think he knew about ballot collection.

“I think Mr. Harris was completely clueless as to what was going on,” Britt said.

Mark Harris listens to the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation Monday morning, Feb. 18, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

But she said she thinks Andy Yates, owner of Cornelius-based Red Dome Group and Harris’ campaign contractor, may have known about Dowless’ tactics.

Britt said she heard Yates and Dowless talk on the phone about vote totals.

“I think Mr. Yates may have known,” Britt said. “I could be wrong about that because maybe they were speaking about other numbers.”

False interview and ballot harvesting

Update, 11:39 a.m.

Lisa Britt, a Bladen County woman who worked for McCrae Dowless during the election, said she made false statements during a December interview with WBTV.

During the interview, she said no laws were broken, and no one was paid to collect ballots. But under oath, she told the state Board of Elections on Monday that she was paid by Dowless to collect both absentee ballot request forms and absentee ballots themselves. She said she was initially paid $125 per 50 ballots, but that changed to a $200 weekly flat rate once they realized it was harder to convince people to hand over their ballots than the initial ballot request form.

“A lot of people don’t want to give you their absentee ballot,” Britt said.

The WBTV interview was conducted in Dowless’ kitchen, with Dowless present.

Britt said she didn’t know she would be interviewed that day when she went to his house.

“I speak to him (Dowless) on a daily basis,” she said. “After I spoke with him for a few minutes, the interviewer pulled up, he explained that was a friend of his he’d spoke with a few times, and he’d like me to give Mr. (Nick) Ochsner an interview.”

Asked why she would make untrue statements during the WBTV interview, Britt explained that she has been very close to him for more than 30 years. Dowless is her former stepfather, having married then divorced her mother.

“Mr. Dowless has always been a father figure to me,” she said. “Well, I’m not sure after today.”

Lisa Britt pauses before answering a question by executive director of the Board of Elections Kim Strach during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation Monday morning, Feb. 18, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Dowless’ workers would find absentee ballots to request by tracking the Board of Elections’ daily report on which voters had received absentee ballots. One voter, Emma Shipman, told Britt she couldn’t see very well when she marked her absentee ballot.

“I told her I could assist her,” Britt said. “Her niece came over and helped her fill out her ballot. Myself and my son stayed outside while they filled out the ballot.”

“I took the signed, sealed ballot,” said Britt. “That ballot was turned back in with the other ballots I had collected that day” to Dowless.

When Horace Munn of the Democratic-aligned Bladen County Improvement Association complained, Dowless told Britt to return the ballot to Shipman. They received a list of voters Wooten had registered and took them off Dowless’ list of people to collect ballots from, Britt said.

Elections director: ‘Efforts were made to obstruct’

Update, 10:36 a.m.

In addition to a wide-ranging absentee ballot fraud scheme, Board of Elections executive director Kim Strach said that efforts to obstruct the investigation into the 9th District have been uncovered.

“Efforts were made to obstruct this investigation,” Strach told the board. She didn’t detail the evidence, but said it will be shown soon. Strach said Dowless paid workers generally a $150 flat rate per 50 ballots they collected. Blank ballots were voted fraudulently in his home and office, she said, and witness signatures were falsified on incomplete ballots.

Dowless tried to hide his scheme by delivering ballots in small batches, mailing them from post offices near voters’ addresses, having witnesses falsely use the same date as the voter signed and using different ink colors for signatures.

“That is certainly a violation of the law,” Strach said.

Executive director of the Board of Elections Kim Strach questions the first witness during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation Monday morning, Feb. 18, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Elections director: Criminal investigation to continue

Update, 10:22 a.m.

“A coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme operated” during the 9th district election, N.C. State Board of Elections executive director Kim Strach told the board Monday.

Investigators conducted 142 interviews and obtained financial records and other documents.

“The criminal investigation will continue to go on after today,” Strach said. “It’s not just about those that have been returned. It’s potentially about those that haven’t been returned,” Strach says.

In Bladen, 595 absentee ballots were unreturned, and 1,493 were not returned in Robeson.

She acknowledged people might not return ballots for other reasons, like forgetting or deciding to vote in person. But Strach said the major absentee ballot irregularities were limited to Bladen and Robeson counties.

Executive director of the Board of Elections Kim Strach during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation Monday morning, Feb. 18, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Evidentiary hearing called to order

Update, 10:02 a.m.

The evidentiary hearing is underway. State Board of Elections Chairman Bob Cordle called the hearing to order.

Packed hearing

Update, 9:55 a.m.

Security told people in line that more of them might be allowed into the room later, if there are still open seats after reporters, witnesses, lawyers and others are seated.

Update, 9:33 a.m.

People are waiting in a long line to get into the hearing, but security is now telling them the room is at capacity.

Ava Williamson, a voter from the 9th Congressional District, joined with protesters in calling for a new election on Monday. “The only way to ensure that every vote is counted, and every voice is heard, is to have a new election.” Will Doran wdoran@newsobserver.com

Protesters gather to call for new election

Update, 9:25 a.m.

Outside the State Bar offices, a small group of protesters including some voters from the 9th district gathered for a news conference to call for a new election. The demonstration was organized by liberal groups led by Progress NC Action.

The group said the alleged fraud was particularly bad because it occurred in a part of the state that was recovering from Hurricane Florence, which had caused widespread damages less than two months before the election.

Marcus Bass, an organizer from the NC Black Alliance, speaks in front of fellow protesters Monday morning as they called for a new election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. “We know the damage goes way further than just what meets the eye,” he said. Will Doran wdoran@newsobserver.com

McCrae Dowless arrives at hearing

Update, 9:10 a.m.

McCrae Dowless, the Bladen County political operative identified by the state elections board as a “person of interest” in its investigation, has arrived at the hearing.

As reporters asked him questions and protesters shouted “lock him up,” Dowless silently walked into the NC State Bar with a small group of supporters.

Hearing expected to last until at least Tuesday

Original post, 6 a.m.:

More than three months after the election for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, a new State Board of Elections plans to kick off hearings Monday that could resolve the nation’s only remaining disputed race.

Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in the unofficial count. But the previous state board twice refused to certify the results, and allegations of illegal ballot collection and election fraud by a political operative working for Harris in Bladen County have thrown the race into turmoil.

The 9th District seat remains vacant. McCready and the Democrats want a new election, claiming the results are tainted by fraud. Harris and the Republicans want him certified as the winner, and they’ve painted the investigation as a conspiracy to deny them the seat.

Executive director of the NC GOP Dallas Woodhouse is seated in the crowd during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation Monday morning, Feb. 18, 2019, at the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

This week’s hearing will start at 10 a.m. Monday, at the North Carolina State Bar in downtown Raleigh. It’s expected to run at least through Tuesday afternoon, and could stretch into Wednesday.

The hearing will start with a presentation of the investigation’s findings by Board of Elections staff. McCready and Harris have asked for about 70 witnesses to be subpoenaed, including key players like Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless, Cornelius-based Republican political consultant Andy Yates, and each other.

The newly appointed board, made up of three Democrats and two Republicans, will then decide whether to certify the race or order a new election. Three votes are needed to certify the election, and four are needed to order a new election.

If the board deadlocks and doesn’t have enough votes either way, it’s unclear what happens next. Harris wants the board to certify him the winner within 10 days if that happens, while McCready wants the U.S. House to decide whether there should be a new election, since the House has final say over whether to seat its members.

Follow along here for an updated story throughout the hearing that details evidence, witness testimony and more. This story will be updated throughout the hearing to reflect the latest developments.

Follow more of our reporting on The North Carolina election fraud investigation

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