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John Harris warned his father about legal red flags involving Bladen operative

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Contradicting his father’s previous denials, the son of Republican Mark Harris testified Wednesday that he told the candidate multiple times that he had concerns about the political operative hired to run an absentee ballot campaign in Bladen County.

The testimony from John Harris rebutted suggestions by Harris and his campaign that they’d seen no red flags about McCrae Dowless, who is now at the center of allegations into voting irregularities in the 9th Congressional District.

John Harris’ dramatic testimony came on the third day of a hearing by North Carolina’s State Board of Elections that could decide the nation’s last unresolved congressional race and has drawn national attention — and it left his father in tears.

“I love my dad and I love my mom,” John Harris said as his father cried. “I certainly have no vendetta against them, no family scores to settle, OK? I think they made mistakes in this process, and they certainly did things differently than I would have done them.”

His parents did not know he was going to testify.

John Harris, an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of North Carolina, first raised concerns about ballot collection in Bladen County on the night of the Republican primary in 2016. Mark Harris finished second in that race, but third-place finisher Todd Johnson collected 221 of 226 mail-in absentee ballots in Bladen County in the race.

John Harris again raised concerns in April 2017, a day after Harris first met with Dowless about running an absentee ballot program in Bladen and Robeson counties. First in a phone call and then in subsequent emails, the younger Harris warned his father of both political and legal ramifications of hiring Dowless. Harris said his father told him McCrae assured them he operated legally.

“They believed what McCrae had assured them,” Harris testified. “I didn’t because I had done a deep dive into the numbers. ... I was right, unfortunately for all of us.”

John Harris cut off most communication with his parents after Dec. 3, but has talked to them about his father’s recent health problems.

Earlier witnesses have testified that Dowless paid them to collect ballots — a felony — and even filled out some absentee ballots himself. John Harris said he noticed that absentee ballots from the 2016 primary had come to Bladen elections officials on the same day, evidence to him of “batching,” that is, collecting and mailing groups of absentee ballots.

He had also noticed an odd pattern in the 2016 GOP primary. In Bladen County that year, Todd Johnson received 221 mail-in absentee votes to four for Mark Harris and just one for incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger.

John Harris said he thought it was a counting error at first, but learned in a conversation with his father later that night that someone was working absentee ballots in Bladen County for the Johnson campaign.

He spoke to his parents on April 7, 2017, a day after the candidate met with Dowless.

“I told him that collecting absentee ballots was a felony,” John Harris said, “and I would send him the statute that collecting ballots was a felony.”

Later that morning, he emailed his father the statute that makes such actions a felony in North Carolina. He also emailed his fears abut Dowless, saying he believed the Bladen County operation was on “thin ice.”

“The key thing I am fairly certain of they do that is illegal is they collect the completed absentee ballots and mail them all at once,” he emailed his parents.

In still another email that night, he said, “Good test is if you’re comfortable with the full process he (Dowless) uses being broadcast in the press.”

“I raised red flags at the time the decision was made to hire Mr. Dowless,” John Harris testified.

John Harris turned those emails over to state board investigators in January.

Mark Harris will testify Thursday, the fourth day of the state board hearing. His attorney said Harris’ testimony would settle any seeming conflicts between his previous statements and those of his son.

In interviews since the election, Mark Harris said no one had raised red flags.

“You know I guess you could say I almost took on a pastorly role to McCrae Dowless,” Harris told WFAE last month. “I found him to be a very enjoyable man who I chatted with, and again, everyone that I had talked to seemed to respect him and seemed to love him. I had no reason to think otherwise.”

Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in unofficial returns in the 9th district. The five-member state board could certify his election, vote to hold a new election, or deadlock, leaving the outcome uncertain. The U.S. House has the final say over who is seated.

John Harris’ testimony followed that of Andy Yates. The chief consultant for Mark Harris’ campaign, Yates heads the Cornelius-based Red Dome Group, which paid Dowless more than $131,000 during the campaign for the collection of mail-in absentee ballot requests, general expenses and a monthly fee. Yates said that no one ever raised concerns about Dowless.

“Based on what he (Dowless) told me, I had no reason to believe he was running an unlawful absentee ballot program,” Yates testified Wednesday. But John Harris said he had warned Yates in mid-2017 when Yates was brought on to run the campaign.

“This McCrae guy, seems like he might be a shady character,” he recalled saying.

Yates testified earlier that he did not remember having a conversation with John Harris about concerns with Dowless. “If that conversation happened, I do not recall that ever happening,” Yates said.

He said Mark Harris hired Dowless before hiring him. Yates said Harris told him Dowless had “minor” criminal issues resulting from a divorce, Yates said.

Yates said he doesn’t conduct criminal background checks on vendors or contractors with the campaign. He did a cursory Google search on Dowless with his name misspelled and also searched on a court records website. Among the charges he saw were assault on a female.

Yates said he considered that charge a misdemeanor and in line with information he had received about Dowless. Yates said others, including former judge Marion Warren and elected officials in Bladen County, had vouched for Dowless.

Dowless, an elected official in Bladen County, is a convicted felon. He was convicted of fraud and perjury in the 1990s. Yates testified that he would have refused to work with Dowless and would have encouraged the Harris campaign to fire Dowless if he were aware of those charges.

During Yates’ testimony, an attorney for McCready showed a transcript of that 2016 hearing, along with transcripts from an NPR program on the 2016 hearing and Dowless. Marc Elias, the attorney for McCready, also read portions of a transcript from a recent Harris TV interview in which Harris described part of Dowless’ procedure for mail-in absentee ballots.

Yates testified that he was surprised by Harris’ description of the procedure, particularly a part about providing assistance to voters.

At the hearing’s opening, state board executive director Kim Westbrook Strach said investigators had uncovered “a coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme operated during the 2018 general election in Bladen and Robeson counties.”

John Harris said his parents believed Dowless’ assurances that his operation was totally legal.

“I think they were lied to and they believed the person who lied to them,’ he said.

On Monday, witnesses, including Dowless’ stepdaughter, testified to how Dowless’ operation worked on the ground — from its payment plan to tips to avoid detection by local officials. Dowless, through his attorney, declined to testify unless granted immunity, which the state board did not offer.

On Tuesday, witnesses testified that early-vote totals in Bladen County were tabulated early and seen by several people. Yates testified about the campaign’s relationship with Dowless — how he was paid, how often it was in communication with him, how little information he had about Dowless’ background.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the state board — with three Democrats and two Republicans — will vote to either certify the election or call for a new election, or will deadlock, leaving the outcome in limbo. It takes three votes to certify the election results and four to call for a new election.

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.
Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.