Mark Harris’ repeated claims that he had no reason to suspect his campaign consultant’s absentee-ballot scheme was illegal were blown apart Wednesday after his son, an assistant U.S. attorney in North Carolina, testified that he raised red flags with his nearly two years ago.
In testimony before the North Carolina State Board of Elections, John Harris said that he had told his father in April 2017 not to hire the consultant, L. McCrae Dowless Jr., a Republican political operative in southeastern North Carolina with a felony record that includes convictions for fraud and perjury.
In 2016, Harris became suspicious after looking at the GOP primary’s absentee returns in Dowless’ county, Bladen County, where Dowless’ candidate received 221 absentee votes. His dad received four, and the incumbent, Rep. Robert Pittenger, who was re-elected, received one.
John Harris said his father and mother met with Dowless a few months later and were convinced his plan to boost absentee turnout was legal and would help if they decided to mount another campaign in 2018.
“They believed what McCrae assured them,” John Harris said. “I didn’t.”
And he told them so.
“The key thing that I am fairly certain they do that is illegal is that they collected the completed absentee ballots and mail them all at once,” he wrote to his parents in an April 2017 email presented at Wednesday’s board hearing.
With Dowless’ help, Mark Harris won the 2018 primary, upsetting Pittenger by less than 1,000 votes after amassing 437 absentee votes in Bladen County. Pittenger and a third candidate combined for just 19.
In November, Harris beat his Democratic opponent, Dan McCready, by 905 votes, but the elections board declined to certify the results based on concerns about the Harris campaign’s absentee-ballot program.
Last month, Harris blamed state authorities for not stopping Dowless in 2016 and suggested Democrats held off on investigating until they could use it to potentially win the congressional seat.
“How can something that went on in the fall of 2016, the public go without warning?” he said in an interview with Spectrum News. “In fact, I think a letter was released from [executive director] Kim Strach at the state board of elections stating that she had sent at some time in early 2017 a letter to the U.S. attorney’s office stating that if these matters aren’t handled then this is likely to happen again. And it just leaves the door open for folks like myself or others that would walk into something.”
Pittenger described Dowless was a “political prostitute,” but Harris rejected that characterization, saying he hired Dowless on the advice of a former judge, Marion Warren.
“(Warren) said he’s a good old boy, he was born and raised there in Bladen County,” Harris said. “He said he eats, sleeps, lives and breathes politics. He said he does things right, and he said if you ever decided you were going to run again and needed Bladen County in the mix you need to let me know and I will be glad to take you down there and introduce you to some key players in Bladen County, including him.”
Harris said his attorney assured him nothing illegal took place in the 2016 primary, so he decided to hire Dowless.
“There seemed to be no indication of any wrongdoing or any illegality at that point so we had no reason to believe that,” Harris said.
On Thursday, Harris’ attorneys released an email from March 2017 suggesting he was well aware of what Dowless was up to.
“You know the political and financial connections better than anyone else I know, including the guy whose absentee ballot project for Johnson could have put me in the US House this term, had I known, and he had been helping,” he wrote in an email to Warren.
Last month, Harris denied a Washington Post report that he had been warned that Dowless committed fraud against him in the 2016 primary.
In an interview with WFAE-FM, Harris said that he and his advisers believed that it was “unusual” that his opponent received so many more absentee ballots but found no evidence of any wrongdoing.
When asked if there had ever been any red flags raised, he said all his concerns had been assuaged.
“No, except I would later learn that obviously there had been things in the past that had been looked into but everything that had been looked into, everything had come out just perfectly fine,” he said.
That came after aides to Pittenger warned both the North Carolina Republican Party as well as the National Republican Congressional Committee — the official national arm of the Republican National Committee that oversees congressional races — that they had reason to believe foul play had corrupted the 2018 primary that Harris won.
Neither group took any discernible action, The Washington Post reported in December.