@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

Harris campaign owes $34K, in part for disputed Bladen absentee effort

Posted December 7, 2018 7:44 a.m. EST
Updated December 7, 2018 12:59 p.m. EST

— Mark Harris' congressional campaign owes more than $34,000 for absentee turnout work to a consultant that contracted with a get-out-the-vote specialist in Bladen County who is at the center of an ongoing investigation into quirky results in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District.

The campaign filed a post-election fundraising document Thursday with the Federal Election Commission, disclosing a number of donations and expenses from the waning days of the election, as well as debts still owed.

Several of those debts are due to Charlotte-based Red Dome Group, one of the campaign's primary consultants.

Red Dome founder Andy Yates has said the group contracted with McCrae Dowless in Bladen County, and Dowless is thought to be the point man for an absentee ballot mining operation that the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement is targeting as part of an investigation that may end up forcing a new election in the 9th District.

The campaign showed several debts to Red Dome in its Thursday filing. Among them, one for "Reimbursement Payment for Bladen Absentee, Early Voting Poll Workers; Reimbursement Door to Door 9."

The filing was first reported Friday by The New York Times. It shows the campaign with $12,600 on hand and some $61,000 in debts, most of that owed Red Dome.

John Branch, a Raleigh attorney for the Harris campaign, declined comment on the matter Friday, saying the campaign is not discussing the investigation beyond a statement issued earlier this week that confirmed it received a subpoena for documents from the State Board, which it was reviewing, and emphasizing that the campaign "was not aware of any illegal conduct in connection with the 9th District race" and intended to cooperate with investigators.

There is some indication Harris at least knew Dowless. Pete Givens, a Republican who ran last year for the Charlotte City Council, told The Charlotte Observer that Harris introduced him to Dowless as someone known for getting out absentee votes.

The State Board has confirmed it also subpoenaed Red Dome in this inquiry, as well as the campaign for Bladen County Sheriff Jim McVicker, who won re-election this November and has not returned WRAL News requests for comment. Red Dome founder Andy Yates, who worked with the Harris campaign, also has not returned WRAL calls and emails.

Based on affidavits collected by the North Carolina Democratic Party, interviews with voters in Bladen and Robeson counties who've been visited by investigators and interviews other media outlets have obtained with people who say they worked for Dowless, the state board is targeting him over accusations that he sent people door to door to collect absentee ballots, which is a crime.

Bladen and Robeson counties saw high percentages of mail-in ballots requested but never returned to election officials to be counted. In Bladen County, where Dowless has done absentee and get-out-the-vote work for years, the percentage was above 40 percent. In neighboring Robeson County, it was upwards of 60 percent.

For other counties in the 9th District, these percentages were in the 20-30 percent range, leading to concerns that someone was taking ballots from people in Bladen and Robeson counties that were never counted.

District-wide, more than 3,400 ballots went unreturned. In Robeson County alone, it was more than 1,000.

Harris seemed to win this race on Election Day by 905 votes over Democrat Dan McCready, but with the state board refusing to certify the results and calling for a public hearing on the findings of its investigation later this month, McCready withdrew his concession Thursday. Democrats in the U.S. House have indicated Harris may never be seated, depending on what investigations find, and state Republicans have gone from demanding the state certify the race to acknowledging a new election may be needed.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman has a criminal investigation ongoing as well, a process that she said includes reviewing campaign finance documents and seeking various financial records.

Voters have told WRAL News that people believed to be working with Dowless either asked them to request absentee ballots or came to collect them. The North Carolina Democratic Party collected a sworn statement from a voter who said at least one of those ballots was unsealed, meaning it could have been tampered with.

That voter ended up voting in person, though, making that particular absentee ballot irrelevant in the election results.