Note: The State Board of Elections is holding hearings this week that could resolve the disputed race in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. This story will be updated throughout Wednesday’s hearing to reflect the latest developments.
Updated 2:48 p.m.
Mark Harris called for a new election in the disputed 9th District on Thursday afternoon.
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He said he suffered two strokes in January and is “struggling” to get through the hearing, now in its fourth day.
“I believe a new election should be called” because of evidence about corruption that has been brought forward, Harris said in testimony.
Update, 12:40 p.m.
Mark Harris said he didn’t believe his son’s warnings that a Bladen County political operative was likely committing felony absentee ballot collection before the 2018 election, and didn’t in fact see them as warnings.
That left Board of Elections member Jeff Carmon, a Durham lawyer, incredulous.
“It was painfully clear to me that your son was saying dad don’t mess with this guy. It’s painfully clear,” Carmon said. “He said if this goes left instead of right, will you be able to handle what comes out in the media? That’s beyond a red flag.”
In phone calls and emails, John Harris told his father that collecting absentee ballots is a felony and that he was “fairly certain” McCrae Dowless was doing so.
“That was your son, with no ax to grind, who wanted to make sure you were protected,” Carmon said.
Harris said he didn’t think his son’s warning, based on an analysis of absentee ballot voting patterns, was credible.
“I knew John had never been down to Bladen County,” said Mark Harris of his son’s warnings. “I did not consider John’s to be a warning that this was a problem...I just believed he was overreacting.”
“I’m his dad, and I know he’s a little judgmental, and has a little taste of arrogance,” Harris said.
Carmon said Harris’ desire to win meant he hadn’t vetted Dowless.
“So you just wanted to win,” Carmon said. “You didn’t take one step to see if the ballots had been harvested previously.”
The hearing broke for lunch and for the board to meet with counsel in chambers just before 12:45 p.m.
Text: Harris asks for meeting with Dowless
Update, 12:15 p.m.
Mark Harris said in a message to a friend asking him to set up a meeting with McCrae Dowless that he was “the guy whose absentee ballot project...could have put me in the US House this term, had I known, and he had been helping us.”
The 2017 text message to former Judge Marion Warren was provided by Harris’ legal team late Wednesday night, a Board of Elections attorney said, and had not been produced earlier in response to a subpoena.
Testifying Thursday, Harris pointed out how close the 2016 race was. He lost the Republican primary in a three-way race.
“I lost by 134 votes,” Harris said. Todd Johnson, his opponent, got 221 absentee votes in Bladen County out of 225 cast. Johnson employed Dowless to run his absentee ballot requests.
Harris said that after the investigation began Nov. 27, Dowless called him while Harris was in Washington, D.C.
“He said this is a setup,” said Harris. “That was his thing, that this was a setup...He said the truth will win out.”
Harris said he hasn’t communicated with Dowless since Dec. 3, when he was subpoenaed.
Asked about his son John Harris’ emotional testimony Wednesday, Harris said he only learned at 11 the night before that his son would take the stand. Harris was talking with his other son and mentioned that he had seen John Harris near the NC State Bar building where the hearing is taking place.
His younger son paused, Harris said, then said: “I don’t know if I should tell you but I don’t want you to be shocked. John has been subpoenaed...and will be testifying.”
Hearing could last into next week — or beyond
Update, 11:35 a.m.
The hearing this week on North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District election fraud scandal could go past Friday and into next week or beyond, Board of Elections chairman Bob Cordle said.
“We may run out of time this week and out of a place to hold these hearings,” Cordle said. He plans to meet with attorneys and board members at lunch to discuss options and schedules for “if we have to go beyond this week.”
That could be problematic for several reasons. The board is meeting in the NC State Bar building in Raleigh, but they only have a room reserved through Friday. The building is used for other functions as well. Also, the five-member board is made up of part-time, unpaid members, most of whom live hours away and have day jobs. Stella Anderson, for example, is a professor in Boone.
The hearing was originally expected to wrap up Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday at the latest. The state board has not finished presenting its case, and both sides will have the opportunity to call their own witnesses before the board deliberates.
Mark Harris: ‘Unaware’ Dowless wasn’t keeping records
Update 11:20 a.m.
Mark Harris said he was unaware that McCrae Dowless and his campaign consultant weren’t keeping any written records of how many absentee ballot requests they’d collected, receipts or any other invoices for expenses.
Andy Yates, owner of political consulting firm Red Dome Group, testified earlier that Dowless provided no receipts, invoices, or other written records about how many absentee ballot requests his workers were collecting. Instead, he simply told Yates how much he needed and Yates wrote checks.
“I assumed Andy was taking care of that,” Harris said Thursday. “I was not keeping up with the checks and amount of money being spent down there.”
Harris also testified that he didn’t know how much his campaign paid Dowless and was surprised to learn the total. Harris’ campaign paid Dowless roughly $115,000 over the course of the campaign, passed through consultant Red Dome, investigators said. That was more than any other individual during the campaign.
“I estimated around $60,000 to $70,000,” Harris said. “I was quite surprised...it was surprising that the total had gotten to that.”
Harris also testified that he initially paid Dowless two checks made out to Dowless’ independent expenditure PAC, Patriots for Progress. Asked if he was aware that independent expenditure groups are legally barred from working for candidates - and thus couldn’t legally be retained by Harris - he said no.
“No. I was not aware of that,” said Harris.
Harris didn’t believe Dowless was illegally collecting ballots
Update 10:35 a.m.
Republican Mark Harris said he didn’t believe McCrae Dowless was illegally collecting ballots, despite his son’s warning.
In sworn testimony, Harris detailed his first meeting with Dowless on April 6, 2017, in a Bladen County furniture store. He had heard about Dowless after losing the 2016 primary. In that contest, his opponent Todd Johnson employed Dowless and won 221 out of 225 absentee ballots cast.
Local Republicans attributed their success in recent elections to two people — Donald Trump and McCrae Dowless.
“I said what makes you so special?” Mark Harris says. “He began to explain to me.”
Dowless told him about a two-phase program. Workers would go door-to-door and get people to request absentee ballots, then hand in the forms, which is legal. Then, in phase two, they’d go back to voters who received absentee ballots.
“It was labor-intensive, and it had more follow-up,” said Harris. “They actually went back to the door...they were there to assist them.”
Two workers would follow up and go “assist” voters, talk to them about candidates, witness their ballot, and “urge them to get it in the mail as soon as possible.”
Harris said he was assured by Dowless that his workers never would collect ballots. But on April 7, John Harris warned his father he believed Dowless, a convicted felon, was illegally collecting and turning in ballots from voters.
“The key thing that I am fairly certain they do that is illegal is that they collect the completed absentee ballots and mail them all at once,” John Harris wrote in an email.
Harris said he believed Dowless, however.
“I shared with him (John Harris) again, based on what I was hearing, that I didn’t sense that,” said Harris. He attributed Dowless’ success to relationships he had in the community.
“The relationships said a lot,” said Harris. “Those relationships I feel are what caused him to be successful.”
Harris said he didn’t ask any other Bladen County politicians if Dowless collected ballots illegally, or get formal legal advice.
“McCrae had been so clear I didn’t think it was necessary,” he said. “I didn’t go back any further...I did have a comfort level at that point.
“He was looking simply at data that he was doing,” Harris said of his son’s warning. “He had never been to Bladen County. He had never met McCrae Dowless.”
His son warned Mark Harris a final time: Consider if he would be “comfortable with the full process (Dowless) uses being broadcast on the news.”
Harris admitted Thursday: “My son was a bit prophetic in his statement that day.”
Board of Elections member: ‘Disgrace’ Harris campaign failed to turn over records
Update 9:44 a.m.
Board of Elections members were upset with the Mark Harris campaign for not turning over evidence or searching key campaign employees’ records thoroughly, they said Thursday.
Jeff Carmon, an attorney from Durham, called the campaign’s actions “a disgrace.”
Josh Lawson, the board’s attorney, said in a memo that the timing of the new evidence from Harris is suspect.
“The timing of your disclosure raises significant and material concerns regarding the committee’s compliance prior to, and now during, the hearing,” he wrote. Their explanation is likely “not accurate” Lawson said.
John Branch, attorney for Republican Harris’ campaign, said they had not searched all of the computers, phones and other devices belonging to key campaign employees like the campaign manager. Those employees were classified as independent contractors and worked for Red Dome Group, a consultant, and not the campaign directly.
Instead of searching their records, Branch said they searched the campaign records.
Marc Elias, attorney for Democrat Dan McCready, said that was unacceptable and didn’t fulfill the subpoena for evidence.
“He got a subpoena...and he did not endeavor to search the campaign manager’s records,” Elias said, visibly upset. “He didn’t bother to ask the campaign manager.”
He asked the board to sanction the Harris campaign and formally vote to make an “adverse inference” and assume their actions showed “consciousness of guilt.” Board chairman Bob Cordle demurred, but said he was concerned by the campaign’s conduct.
“That is to me, personally, not acceptable,” said Cordle.
Elias said the McCready campaign may have to call new witnesses, like Harris’ campaign manager, since the campaign admitted his records haven’t been searched.
“We’re in the third day of a one-day hearing and records are still being produced that are explosively important,” said Elias. The hearing is in its fourth day and could stretch well past Friday.
Harris campaign turns over new documents
Update 9:15 a.m.
Thursday’s hearing opened with another surprise: N.C. Board of Elections attorney Josh Lawson said Mark Harris’ campaign turned over crucial new documents as evidence just last night.
“We were only provided the following last night,” said Lawson. The new evidence includes texts from Harris about McCrae Dowless, the political operative from Bladen County who’s at the center of the scandal.
“None of them were produced by his (Mark Harris for Congress) committee at all,” said Lawson. He said Harris’ messages include the initial solicitation to former Judge Marion Warren about setting up a meeting with Dowless.
That 2017 email indicated Harris thought Dowless’ absentee ballot program could be the difference-maker that would help him win.
“You know the political and financial connections better than anyone else I know, including the guy whose absentee ballot project for (Todd) Johnson could have put me in the US House this term, had I known and had he been helping us,” Harris wrote.
Lawson said the board and Harris campaign had argued about whether the subpoena could apply to documents before Harris’ campaign committee was officially formed in July 2017. The Harris campaign did not want to produce documents from before that date.
“When a committee comes into existence, it is carried back,” said Bob Cordle, the board chair. “Is that correct?”
Lawson said the board had believed that all the documents they requested were provided, but that was not the case.
Board members also questioned why emails from John Harris, Harris’ son, weren’t turned over to the board earlier.
“We believed it was not within the scope of production as we identified in correspondence with our state board,” said John Branch, the Harris campaign attorney.
Lawson said the documents in question were all covered by the board’s subpoenas and should have been provided.
“It was within the time frame of the subpoena,” said Lawson. “It was only after there were indications yesterday that John Harris was going to take the stand, 15 minutes before that...that they tried to proffer those.”
Branch, the Harris campaign attorney, said there are 150,000 documents in the committee’s possession.
“Putting together this production in a month was a monumental undertaking,” he said. “We’ve turned over thousands and thousands and thousands of documents...in a month.”
“We’ve produced everything we said we’d produce,” he said.
Marc Elias, attorney for Democratic candidate Dan McCready, criticized the “miraculous” timing of the new documents revealed and asked the board to infer “consciousness of guilt” on Harris’ part.