Courts & the Law, News

Report: Mark Harris knew and recommended consultant at center of voter fraud scandal

Rev. Mark Harris

A new report from The Charlotte Observer suggests Mark Harris — the presumed winner of this year’s U.S. House District 9 race — knew and recommended the embattled campaign consultant at the center of the voter fraud scandal.

The newspaper published a story this afternoon that digs into McRae Dowless’ background, which includes a felony conviction in 1992 for fraud and perjury.

But perhaps the most interesting segment suggests that Harris, a Republican from Charlotte, once recommended Dowless’ services to another candidate.

Questions about Dowless and the handling of absentee ballots in District 9 derailed the certification process for that election, which Harris appeared to win last month by about 900 votes.

It’s unclear what happens next in the stalled election.

From The Charlotte Observer:

A man who worked as an “independent contractor” for Republican Mark Harris’ campaign in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District is a convicted felon who faced jail time for fraud and perjury, according to court records.

Over the last two decades, he has been paid by at least nine candidates, all for get-out-the-vote work, according to state records.

Leslie McCrae Dowless was convicted of felony fraud in 1992 in Iredell County, according to court records. Dowless and his wife were accused of taking out an insurance policy on a dead man and collecting nearly $165,000 from his death, according to a 1991 Fayetteville Observer article. He served more than six months of a two-year prison sentence, according to court records.

Dowless, now 62, was convicted of felony perjury in 1990, according to court records.

The results of Harris’ apparent victory over Democrat Dan McCready in November’s election have not been certified by the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement. The nine-member board has twice declined to certify the results and will hold an evidentiary hearing this month due to “claims of numerous irregularities and concerted fraudulent activities related to absentee mail ballots,” according to Joshua Malcolm, the board’s vice chair.

Dowless was paid by the Harris campaign as a contractor for the candidate’s top consultant, according to The Charlotte Observer.

“He was an independent contractor who worked on grassroots for the campaign, independent of the campaign … as he’s done for a number of campaigns over the years,” said Andy Yates, Harris’ top strategist and the founder of Red Dome Group.

In an affidavit given to the Democratic Party, Dwight Sheppard, a fire investigator in Bladen County, said he believes Dowless is in the thick of the controversy. Dowless has denied any wrongdoing to The Charlotte Observer. He could not be reached on Monday by phone or on Sunday at an address listed for him in voting records. Read more

Courts & the Law, News

Government watchdog complaint: Did a state senator and a Superior Court judge break campaign finance laws?

Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Duplin, Johnston, Sampson

A new complaint filed Friday with North Carolina election officials questions whether a powerful Republican state senator and a state Superior Court judge have violated campaign finance laws and judicial conduct rules.

Bob Hall, a longtime government watchdog and former head of Democracy North Carolina, called on the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement to conduct a “comprehensive audit and investigation” of Sen. Brent Jackson, a four-term state senator representing Duplin, Johnston and Sampson counties.

Hall’s complaint points to now-amended campaign finance reports that originally listed state Superior Court Judge Beecher Gray as donating thousands to Jackson’s campaign. If the contributions were made by Gray, they might be a violation of the State Code of Judicial Conduct, which prohibits a sitting judge from making contributions to most individuals seeking political office.

As Hall’s statement notes, reports showed thousands of dollars in contributions from Gray after his appointment by former Gov. Pat McCrory in January 2014, with donations to Jackson and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger in 2014 and 2015.

However, Jackson’s contributions were amended in spring 2016 on state reports, following their unearthing in February 2016 on a blog run by Greg Flynn, another campaign finance watchdog from Wake County.

After the revisions, most of Gray’s questionable contributions appeared on state reports as donations made by the judge’s wife, Sue. Still, one contribution of $1,000 to Berger in October 2014 still lists as being made by Gray, roughly nine months after he was appointed by McCrory.

Gray was an active donor prior to his appointment, records show, including contributions to McCrory.

Many of the contributions to Jackson also came as members of the Senate budget committee, which was co-chaired by Jackson, considered – and eventually approved – a boost in longevity pay for four state judges, including Gray.

As WRAL reported last year, Gray benefited the most because it allowed the Durham attorney to count his two decades-plus as an administrative law judge in his longevity bonus. The proposal allowed Gray to pick up a 24 percent bonus, earning an additional $31,000 in annual pay.

Hall said state officials should review the original checks to determine whether Gray or his wife made the contributions, adding that – if the cash indeed came from Gray – it may be a violation of campaign finance law prohibiting donors from making contributions in someone else’s name.

“It is important for the public to definitively know whether or not Judge Gray made contributions after his appointment as Superior Court judge and whether or not he or Sen. Jackson or others were involved in improperly changing the donor of a contribution,” Hall wrote.

Reached Friday, Gray declined comment on Hall’s claims, and Jackson had not responded to Policy Watch inquiries by this publishing.

Hall’s complaint is multifaceted though, also questioning whether the senator may have incorrectly reported dozens of donors as farmers, when many are, in fact, influential business owners in construction, pharmaceuticals, energy, healthcare and other industries with a stake in state contracts.

Jackson, a farmer himself, is one of the state’s leading agriculture proponents in the state legislature and a chief budget writer in the state Senate.

Bob Hall

Hall delved into a lengthy list of donations from purported “farmers,” identifying more than 80 that he said may have been incorrectly reported to the state.

Hall highlighted several, including Robert Barnhill Jr., a Tarboro executive with Barnhill Contracting Company, a builder with contracts in the Department of Transportation; John McCauley, CEO of Highland Paving in Fayetteville, also a DOT contractor; Charles Fuller of The Results Company, a group that helps to advocate for favorable government policies for their clients; and Greg Jennings of Durham, the owner of an engineering consulting firm who contracts with a Winston-Salem nonprofit that won a controversial budget provision this year from state lawmakers funding a beach nourishment study.

“By misidentifying donors with major interests in state contracts and the state budget, Sen. Jackson and his campaign deceive the public, falsely inflate his financial support from farmers, and violate campaign disclosure laws,” Hall wrote. “A few mistakes are understandable, but such a large number of cases where ‘farmer, self-employed’ hides a donor’s principal economic identity is inexcusable.”

This is a breaking story. Check back for updates from Policy Watch.

Commentary, immigration, News, Trump Administration

Editorial: “Inhumane” Trump administration to blame for Sunday’s border chaos

President Donald Trump’s “inhumane” urging for anti-immigrant policies is to blame for this weekend’s border chaos, a new editorial from The Charlotte Observer says.

As we wrote at Policy Watch, Trump deployed a Fox News-fed panic over a migrant caravan to bolster Republicans in this year’s midterm elections.

And the president’s administration has been roundly criticized for separating detained children from their families at the border. This weekend’s border fracas is just the latest controversy for Trump.

Multiple outlets reported the scene Sunday at the San Ysidro border crossing — about 20 miles south of San Diego — in which a protest of American procedures for asylum seekers turned violent.

According to USA Today, several hundred migrants rushed a border fence and attempted to enter the country, sparking a violent exchange with border patrol guards and Mexican authorities.

Photos of the scene showed women with children fleeing tear gas that was apparently fired by American border patrol.

Monday’s editorial says Trump’s frequent demonizing of immigrants made this outcome seem inevitable. Read below.

From The Charlotte Observer:

It should be far from surprising that U.S. agents fired tear gas Sunday on hundreds of migrants — including toddlers — at a border crossing in Tijuana, Mexico. For almost two years, their boss the president has treated immigrants — both legal and illegal — as something less than worthy of humane treatment. He’s cruelly separated thousands of children from their parents. He’s called immigrants rapists and criminals and residents of “shithole” countries. Most recently, he’s used them as political props to be demonized in an effort to win midterm elections in Congress.

So it was, almost inevitably, that a migrant caravan was met with a harsh response at the U.S. border this weekend. On Sunday, Mexican police denied a group of these migrants from walking over a bridge to the port of entry to the U.S., where the immigrants could apply for asylum. Instead, some in the group walked along the Tijuana River to a wire fencing, which they tried to breach. U.S. border agents fired tear gas their way and into Mexico.

It could have been worse. Just last week, President Trump, over fierce objections from some administration officials, granted troops deployed at the border the right to use lethal force to defend border patrol agents. Thankfully, no one took the president up on his blessing to shoot bullets instead of tear gas at the border crossers.

But Sunday was about more than a caravan of migrants trying to legally apply for asylum. It’s about the continued poisoning of immigration reform by a president who exploits racial and demographic insecurities on the right. Those anti-immigration forces don’t want the sensible reforms that a majority of Americans want — strong border enforcement and a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants. In fact, those forces don’t want to acknowledge that our borders already have been strengthened under recent administrations to the point that deportations have risen and crossings have trended down since 2000.

Instead, what at least some want is a whiter world that no longer exists, and they have a president who leverages their fear by pushing for policies that harshly treat those who cross illegally, and by also limiting legal immigration. All the while, he attempts to appeal to the worst in us by emphasizing the worst in them.

He’s still wrong about that. Immigrants continue to be not a threat to our country, but a vital part of our culture and, yes, economy. Imagine if this most recent caravan had been treated as such, that instead of sending more than 5,000 troops to the Southern border, the president had instead sent a few thousand non-military personnel to accommodate a surge of peaceful asylum applications. Perhaps there would be less inflammatory rhetoric surrounding the caravan, which already has led to some violence on Mexican streets. Perhaps there would be no tear gas, no children and mothers choking on our fear, and this country of immigrants could look something closer to humane.

Education, News

With N.C. reading initiative a bust, experts have tips for boosting childhood literacy

With a new N.C. State University study offering a particularly bleak assessment of North Carolina’s efforts to boost childhood literacy, experts are offering tips for parents to do their part in getting past the state’s Read to Achieve doldrums.

That study found no discernible impact from six years, and about $150 million in spending, on the Read to Achieve program, an initiative championed by Republican lawmakers and state Senate President Phil Berger.

The program hinges on early-grade testing and reading interventions for lagging children, but has been a target of some critics who say it contributes to over-testing in the early grades.

Facing the study’s grim findings, The Charlotte Observer‘s Ann Doss Helms offered up a report Monday that delves into the troubling findings for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), the state’s second-largest public school system, and some recommendations for parents to help improve student performance outside of the classroom.

From The Charlotte Observer:

Munro Richardson was dismayed but hardly shocked to hear that a recent N.C. State University study found no benefit from the state’s Read to Achieve program.

Hired three years ago to lead Read Charlotte, a private push to boost third-grade reading, he had watched state and local test scores sag despite massive efforts from the state and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. When the most recent report came out in September, only 46 percent of third-graders in CMS and 45 percent statewide earned scores that indicate they’re on track to succeed in college and careers. Only about one-third of black, Hispanic and low-income children hit that mark.

Richardson took his own deep dive into reading test scores, comparing five years of results for 107 CMS elementary schools and six Charlotte-area charter schools.

“The picture that emerges is not one of lower poverty schools doing better than higher poverty schools,” Richardson wrote in an email to the Observer. “Or of charter schools doing better than CMS schools. The overall trend for ALL SCHOOLS is headed in the wrong direction. … For the most part the picture is grim.”

That doesn’t mean Richardson and his donors are giving up. Instead, Richardson said, they’ve spent the past three years combing research for strategies that parents and volunteers can use to make a difference — often long before children report to school.

Here are four opportunities for parents, relatives, volunteers and donors to help young children become strong readers.

1. Stop reading to children … and start reading with them.

Instead of just reading a book to a child — which, of course, isn’t really a bad thing — Read Charlotte pushes “active reading.” That means the adult asks questions about what might happen next in the story, helps children learn words by dramatizing them (“Don’t just read ‘whisper,’ actually whisper”) and talks about how the story relates to the child’s life.

Free workshops on “The ABCs of Active Reading” are available around the county; find the schedule at Tutors trained in active reading work with students in eight CMS elementary schools; learn more and sign up at

2. Play games that build skills.

You don’t need to be a teacher or a college graduate to help children learn letters and sounds. Home Reading Helper ( offers computer games and simple home activities that are tailored to a child’s age and reading level. For instance, a kindergartener might play “Frog’s Rhyming Machine” or “Dinosaur Field Guide,” while the parents could print out a vocabulary list and get tips on how to work more words into daily conversation.

Families can also sign up for weekly text messages suggesting additional activities, also tailored to the child’s age, at or by texting READCLT to 70138.

3. Get free books — or provide them for others.

The Charlotte area has plenty of book drives, but the Dolly Parton Imagination Library is now offering to send a free book each month to the home of any Mecklenburg County child younger than 5 years old. Sign up at, or get more information at or 704-943-9780.

Donors can also pitch in at the website; $30 covers a year’s books for one child.

4. Help budding readers get over the hump.

Some students who fail reading tests know how to read words but can’t put them together well enough to enjoy reading and keep up with grade-level work. Developing that skill, called fluency, is the focus of a program called Helping Early Literacy with Practice Strategies, or HELPS.

Richardson says that program, developed by N.C. State University professor John Begeny, is one of his best finds from reviewing research on what works. Many reading interventions have not been evaluated well enough to say scientifically how many children are likely to benefit, Richardson says. And of those that have, the typical program produces reading gains for three children out of 100.

HELPS improves fluency and comprehension for 35 out of 100 participants, based on rigorous comparison studies, Richardson said. The program trains teachers and tutors to read with individual students in 10- to 15-minute sessions in ways that help the students get more confident and comfortable with reading.

Read Charlotte is working with CMS to get HELPS into 11 schools this year. Volunteers, who get three hours of training and are asked to commit one hour a week, are urgently needed. Sign up at

Will this work?

None of these strategies should be expected to work miracles. Groups have handed out books, volunteers have read with kids and districts across North Carolina have cycled through reading programs for years.

State legislators have pumped more than $150 million into Read To Achieve, a program that focuses on testing third-graders and retaining those who can’t read at grade level. Five years in, they have little to show for it.

Richardson says these programs are part of a larger strategy that has to include everything from expanded public prekindergarten to better support for families.

Leora Itzhaki, principal of Montclaire Elementary, has been with CMS long enough to see lots of reading programs launched and discarded. She and her literacy facilitator, Katie Fazio, say they’re optimistic about HELPS reading because it’s so carefully researched and scripted. It’s also funded by a nonprofit organization to keep costs low, rather than marketed by a for-profit company.

Montclaire, where many of the students come from Spanish-speaking families, has 21 third-graders taking part in HELPS. On a recent morning they trooped in and out of a mobile classroom, where volunteers had them read a timed passage, check their speed and accuracy, had them re-read any sections they had trouble with, read aloud to their students and tried again to see if they had gotten faster and more accurate.

In some ways it was almost mechanical, with the adults reading from scripts, following flow charts and graphing each student’s results. But the volunteers added warm praise, dynamic reading and trips to the “prize box” for meeting goals. The children seemed to enjoy the exercise.

Montclaire won’t have data on its kids until midterm testing, but the educators and volunteers say they’re seeing results. Many of the students who used to read hesitantly and stumble over words — all the Montclaire students in the program are also English language learners — are showing that they can read aloud at a faster pace with a little coaching and practice.

“It’s very methodical and repetitive,” Fazio said, “but the kids love it, I think.”

Courts & the Law, News

Column: Following new lawsuit, it’s time for NC redistricting reform

Thomas Mills, a longtime political consultant and founder over at Politics NC, says he has a suggestion for North Carolina leaders, after government reform advocates and Democrats filed a new lawsuit that takes aim at the state’s gerrymandered legislative districts.

According to Mills, lawmakers should call for a constitutional amendment that would create a bipartisan redistricting commission.

From Politics NC:

North Carolina legislative districts are headed back to court. There are so many lawsuits about redistricting and gerrymandering that it’s hard to keep track. This one will go to state courts where Democrats just won a solid majority on the Supreme Court.

To recap a little bit, and this is just from memory, the Congressional districts need to be redrawn before the 2020 election because a three-judge federal panel found them to be unconstitutional. Legislative districts in Wake County are already supposed to be redrawn because the legislature tried to make them more Republican after ordered to redraw other districts. Apparently, the legislature took it upon themselves to redraw any districts they thought needed more protecting, whether they were found unconstitutional or not. In doing so, they violated a constitutional provision that does not allow redrawing districts between Censuses.

This is the third decade in a row that North Carolina has undergone redistricting chaos. For all their squealing, Republicans sued as often as Democrats and Democrats’ maps weren’t nearly as biased as those drawn by Republicans. Polls show North Carolinians know more about redistricting than people in other states. It’s time to stop.

So here’s a suggestion: Republicans in the legislature agree to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2020 that will put in place a redistricting commission appointed by both Democrats and Republicans. They should set strict rules for redistricting that allow for little political jockeying. In exchange, Common Cause and its allies will drop ALL redistricting lawsuits leading up to the 2020 election. We can get through the next two years without worrying about drawing new district lines and look forward to a decade free of court cases about gerrymandering.

It’s time legislators put the people of North Carolina ahead of their political ambitions. We’ve had enough of extremist ideas and legislation that embarrasses our state. We need to return to our reputation of moderation and common sense. A bipartisan agreement to end gerrymandering would be a great place to start.

To this point, top lawmakers like Rep. David Lewis, the Harnett County Republican who’s spearheaded the GOP’s much assailed redistricting, have rebuffed calls for an independent redistricting process.

Yet, as the new suit’s litigants point out, Democratic General Assembly candidates in North Carolina took about 51 percent of the vote in this year’s elections, but were slated to win only about 44 percent of the seats.

Democrats broke the Republican veto-proof majority in the state House and Senate, but Republicans retained control in both chambers.

Federal judges have already ruled against state lawmakers in a similar lawsuit challenging the state’s congressional districts, and North Carolina awaits word on whether legislators’ appeal will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the meantime, the new suit would challenge state legislative districts in state courts, a challenge that may ultimately be heard by the state Supreme Court. With this year’s election of civil rights attorney Anita Earls, Democrats hold a strong majority on that court.

Policy Watch’s Melissa Boughton has been dutifully keeping track of the winding lawsuits challenging North Carolina’s tortured maps. Be sure to follow her work.