Courts & the Law, News

GOP senators file bill reversing decision to shrink Court of Appeals

Senators Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), Warren Daniel (R-Caldwell) and Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg)

Almost two years after passing a measure to shrink the state Court of Appeals from 15 judges to 12, Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation to reverse their decision.

Senators Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), Warren Daniel (R-Caldwell) and Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg) filed Senate Bill 75 Monday. They did not immediately respond to a request for comment about what spurred the change of heart.

Hise, Daniel and Bishop all voted to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the original bill reducing the Court of Appeals, House Bill 239. Bishop was absent when the measure was first passed, but he was a supporter in committee meetings. The other two voted in favor of the original bill.

Former Rep. Justin Burr, a Republican who represented Stanley and Montgomery counties, sponsored the measure shrinking the court. It was one of several bills he pushed to change the state judiciary for partisan gain — those efforts led to his loss in the primary election last year.

Doug McCullough

Doug McCullough, a Republican judge who retired early from the Court of Appeals to prevent HB 239 from taking effect, said Tuesday morning in a phone interview he thinks the new bill restoring the number of judges was a good idea.

“I’m glad to see that the legislature realizes they made a mistake, and I hope that they correct it,” he said.

McCullough didn’t know the bill was going to be filed and he could only speculate about why Republicans changed their minds from their decision to shrink the court. He wondered if Phil Berger Jr., a Court of Appeals judge who recently announced he would run for a Supreme Court seat next year, told his father, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger that they couldn’t function with an odd number of judges.

Republican judge Robert Hunter Jr. will reach mandatory retirement at the end of this month. His departure would bring the court down to 14 judges — eight Republicans and six Democrats.

If he leaves along with his resources, McCullough said, the heavy workload will fall on the other judges on the court.

“We don’t work like other courts,” the retiree said.

One thing SB 75 doesn’t reverse is the workload HB 239 took from the Court of Appeals and rerouted to the state Supreme Court — class action certification appeals, business appeals and 3.1 case appeals (which involve children and issues of abuse and neglect and termination of parental rights).

McCullough said the Court of Appeals perfected an expedited process for those cases involving child issues and termination of parental rights. He described the cases as very technical and not of the same constitutional frame that Supreme Court justices are used to working in.

“I hope that they reverse that matter as well,” he said.

If SB 75 is passed, Gov. Roy Cooper would have the authority to appoint judges to fill the vacancy left by Hunter’s departure.

(This post has been updated. An earlier version inaccurately stated that Judge Ann Marie Calabria would be retiring in October of 2019. Judge Calabria actually left the court last month and was replaced by Judge Toby Hampson, who was elected last November.)

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Day 1 wrap-up: NC experienced congressional election fraud, but not of the Trump variety

Attorney Cynthia Singletary, left, says her client, McCrae Dowless, will not testify without immunity during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation. (Photo by Juli Leonard/Raleigh News and Observer)

The first day of an evidentiary hearing about a full-scale unlawful absentee ballot scheme that benefited 9th Congressional District Republican candidate Mark Harris ended with even more of a bang than when it began.

McCrae Dowless, the man hand-picked by Harris to work on his campaign with Red Dome Consulting, sat in the courtroom Monday and watched all day as evidence unfolded about his extensive involvement in an operation that involved collecting unsealed absentee ballots and voting for those individuals who left their form blank, among other things.

He listened to his step-daughter, his ex-wife and the people he’d been nice to along the way who helped him with the ballot harvesting scheme testify about how he directed them to commit felonies and paid them for it and about his speakerphone conversations with Harris and others. They spoke about how they trusted Dowless and about how hindsight showed just how wrong they’d been to do so.

When it came time to tell his side of the story, Dowless refused. His attorney, Cynthia Adams Singletary, said they satisfied the subpoena requesting his attendance but he wouldn’t testify unless the State Board of Elections compelled him to do so.

If the newly appointed five-member Board were to do that, it would mean Dowless could receive criminal immunity for his testimony, according to North Carolina law. The Board was unwilling to grant that immunity and asked instead for Dowless to voluntarily testify, knowing that if he chose not to, the Board had the right to take negative inferences from his refusal.

Dowless would not testify and he was excused from the subpoena as the day ended.

The State Board is considering whether to certify Harris’ race.  The evidence presented Monday about the “coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme” is the first time North Carolinians learned about the extent of the alleged fraud — which wasn’t the widespread individual voter fraud touted over the past year by President Donald Trump and his administration.

The fraud here was painted as a grassroots effort led by Dowless to make sure Harris would be elected to the 9th congressional district. Residents in poor, rural Bladen and Robeson counties — both hit hard by the recent hurricanes — were taken advantage of by Dowless, whether it was by having his associates collect and sign and fill out their absentee ballots or whether it was by his showing kindness to them and then later asking for help committing election fraud.

Witness Kelly Hendrix cries as she is questioned by executive director of the Board of Elections Kim Strach during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation. (Photo by Juli Leonard/Raleigh News and Observer)

Kelly Hendrix sobbed for a brief moment when she was asked how she knew Dowless. She testified that she met him when she worked at Hardee’s and he gave her a ride to work once. After that, they connected, and she started helping him out with the ballots. In return, he’d give her gas money here and there, but never said it was for the ballots specifically, she said.

Kimberly Sue Robinson trusted Dowless so much, she gave his associates a completely blank ballot signed for him to choose the candidates she should vote for. She’s done that a couple times, and even when she hasn’t, Dowless has told her who she should vote for “because I was not familiar with the politics,” she testified.

“I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong, to be honest,” Robinson said during cross-examination questioning.

Dowless’ ex-wife, Sandra Dowless, also testified that she overheard him leading a meeting in April 2018 with Jeff Smith, who allowed him to use an empty storefront to operate out of. In the meeting, they were talking about picking up ballots, whether they were sealed or unsealed and bringing them to Dowless.

Sandra said it caught her attention when she heard “unsealed” and she confronted her ex about it. He assured her it was Smith’s idea and showed her a letter he signed as his “insurance policy” to prove he wasn’t part of it.

Sandra also testified that she overheard a speakerphone call later in the year between Harris and Dowless, in which her ex assured the congressional candidate he was in the lead and that things were looking good. When Harris asked how he knew, he said he checked information at the Board of Elections that anyone can get.

Lisa Britt pauses before answering a question during the public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District investigation. (Photo by Juli Leonard/Raleigh News and Observer)

“McCrae said he goes by the board and looks at the data sheet,” Sandra said from the witness stand. “He just said, ‘I know how the people voted.'”

Her daughter, Lisa Britt, had been the State Board’s main witness all day. Britt worked for Dowless harvesting, signing and filling out absentee ballots. She and her two children at the time were living with him after she got out of a bad relationship, she said.

Britt said Dowless paid between $150 and $175 cash per 50 absentee ballot registrations they collected and were later paid $125 per 50 actual absentee ballots they picked up, which changed in the last couple weeks before the election to a flat rate of $200 per week. She also testified about the lengths Dowless went to to avoid raising red flags to the Board of Elections, including using the same color ink for witnesses’ signatures as voters’ and mailing ballots from voters’ nearby post boxes.

Red Dome Consulting paid Dowless $131,375.57 (and billed Harris) between July 3, 2017 and Nov. 7, 2018. It’s not clear all of those payments were for the ballots regarding the 9th congressional district and it could include payments from other candidates, according to evidence from the State Board. Read more

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Board of Elections uncovers ‘unlawful’ absentee ballot scheme in 9th congressional district race

Several people gathered Monday outside the State Bar and called for a new election before the start of an evidentiary hearing about alleged absentee ballot fraud in the 9th congressional district. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

A political operative working for Republican U.S. Congressional candidate Mark Harris paid people to help him collect, fill out and turn in absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties leading up to last year’s midterm election, according to evidence gathered by the State Board of Elections.

Executive Director Kim Westbrook Strach said Monday there was a “coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme” uncovered in those areas, which has delayed the certification of a couple races, including Harris’ for the 9th congressional district.

Allegations have swirled for months around Leslie McCrae Dowless, who was paid (and paid others) to illegally harvest absentee ballots, but the evidentiary hearing Monday is the first time the most shocking details have been released.

Dowless stared straight-faced ahead from the back of a room at the State Bar as a preview of evidence about his alleged operation flashed on two TV screens up front. His expression didn’t change when his former stepdaughter, Lisa Britt, testified about how he paid her to help with the absentee ballots and then tried to get her to plead the fifth at this hearing in a letter last week.

“I can tell you that I haven’t done anything wrong in the election, and McCrae Dowless has never told me to do anything wrong, and to my knowledge, he has never done anything wrong, but I am taking the 5th Amendment because I don’t have an attorney and I feel like you will try to trip me up,” the typed-letter stated. “I am taking the 5th.”

The allegation of obstruction was a surprise to most in the room, including Dowless’ attorney, Cynthia Adams Singletary. Dowless ignored questions about it from reporters following him out of the room during a lunch break.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” Singletary said, adding that she was sure he didn’t give that letter to Britt.

McCrae Dowless (right of the man with the blond hair) watched an evidentiary hearing Monday alleging he pulled off an absentee ballot scheme in Bladen and Robeson counties last year. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Singletary maintained Dowless’ innocence despite the evidence presented during the first half of the day. She said she wasn’t sure before the hearing if Britt was going to testify. When asked if Dowless tried to stop anyone from testifying, she snapped, “hell no!”

Britt testified that she and others were paid somewhere between $150 and $175 per 50 absentee ballot registrations they collected and were later paid $125 per 50 actual absentee ballots they picked up, which changed in the last couple weeks before the election to a flat rate of $200 per week. They were paid in cash when they turned the ballots into Dowless at either his office or his home.

Britt said Dowless explained what she was supposed to do and that she thought they were helping people register to vote. Bladen County is a poor area, she added, so they were giving voters more opportunities to cast ballots.

She couldn’t recall how much money she was paid entirely for her work or how many people’s ballots she was personally involved in helping with.

“We dealt with a lot of people, so I’m not really sure how many people it was we registered to vote,” Britt testified.

Other things she testified about included Dowless instructing her to use the same color ink to sign as a witness as the voter’s signature and how they filled in some incomplete ballots where voters didn’t choose candidates for certain races. She also admitted to signing her mother’s name as a witness on some forms when she was told she had been a witness on too many ballots.

It wasn’t until Dowless “fussed” at her for putting upside-down stamps on ballot mail-in envelopes that she realized they were doing something wrong. He told her they didn’t want to raise any red flags for the Board of Elections to catch on.

“I guess one or two wouldn’t have mattered but if you had 10 or 15 come in like that, they’d think, ‘Now, hey, wait a minute, why are they all coming in that way?'” Britt said.

She also testified that they would never mail more than nine or 10 ballots at a time, and they would mail them from mailboxes closest to voters to prevent suspicion.

Britt expressed some sympathy for Harris, who she said she believed didn’t know about the absentee ballot scheme.

“I think Mr. Harris was completely clueless as to what was going on, as far as I’m concerned,” she said.

Harris was at the hearing. He wore a navy blue suit and lighter blue tie and his hand covered his mouth for much of the hearing. His Democratic opponent Dan McCready was not present.

Overall evidence presented by the Strach showed that at least 788 absentee ballot request forms in Bladen County were submitted by Dowless or his workers in Blade County for the general election. At least 231 of the same requests, but as many as 449, were submitted by Dowless or his workers in Robeson County.

The way the scheme operated was that Dowless’ workers obtained the absentee ballot request forms from voters then turned them back into him for payment. The request forms were photocopied and maintained at Dowless’ office and then delivered to the local Board of Elections by Dowless, according to the State Board.

The actual unsealed absentee ballots were also collected directly from voters, some with no witness signatures or with only one witness signature. Those ballots were kept at Dowless’ home or office, and he instructed people to falsely sign as witnesses and fill out votes on blank or incomplete forms.

Red Dome Consulting, hired by Harris, paid Dowless $131,375.57 between July 3, 2017 and Nov. 7, 2018. Strach said it’s not clear all of those payments were for the ballots regarding the 9th congressional district and it could include payments from other candidates.

The State Board was unable to confirm if any of the early vote totals were leaked, according to Strach.

The State Board, seated at the end of January, could decide this week whether or not to certify Harris’ race. The evidentiary hearing could take several days, and even if the race is certified, the U.S. House could launch its own investigation and refuse to seat Harris.

Bob Cordle, Chairman of the State Board, said if they decide to order a new election and not certify the race, it could be based on the number of fraudulent absentee ballots or the entirety of the improprieties that could taint the race and cast doubt on the fairness of it.

“Our voters must have trust in our process and believe their vote must be counted and believe elections must be fair,” Cordle said.

This is a breaking news story and will be updated as more information becomes available.

Education, News, Voting

Six things to have on your radar this week

Photo by Melissa Boughton

#1  We kick off the week with the State Board of Elections holding a much-anticipated evidentiary hearing today on claims of irregularities related to absentee by-mail voting and other alleged activities in the 9th Congressional District.

The hearing got underway at 10:00am at the North Carolina State Bar in downtown Raleigh.

Outside, pro-democracy organizations have gathered to call for accountability and a new election.

Currently, Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes, but the race has not been certified and the congressional seat remains unfilled.

Policy Watch’s Courts and Law reporter Melissa Boughton is live tweeting the proceedings, which are expected to last a couple of days. You can follow her coverage on Twitter at @mel_bough.

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#2 This afternoon Gov. Roy Cooper will deliver remarks at a ceremony honoring North Carolina’s 9th Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green at the North Carolina State Capitol.

The program will start at 4:00 p.m., with a reception to follow. For those who are unable to attend in person, watch the ceremony online here: https://bit.ly/2RarWjD

You can learn more about Green in this 2018 piece by reporter David Menconi.

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#3 Numerous legislative committees are meeting Tuesday and Wednesday– too many to mention them all. Here are just a couple to pay attention to:

9:00 AM – The Senate Rules Committee meets to discuss Senate Bill 5, a school construction bill titled “Building North Carolina’s Future” in 1027/1128 of the Legislative Building.  Policy Watch’s Greg Childress detailed the bill here last week.

10:00 AM – The Joint Health Care Committee will hear from State Treasurer Dale Folwell and Dr. Michael Waldrum, NCHA Board Chair on the proposed State Health Plan Pricing Model. That meeting will be in 643 of the LOB.

Wednesday’s 8:30 AM Joint Appropriations Committee will include a revenue forecast/budget outlook presentation by Dr. Barry Boardman in Room 643 LOB.

DPI Superintendent Mark Johnson

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# 4 Tuesday evening at 6:00pm State Superintendent Mark Johnson hosts a special invitation-only leadership dinner at the Raleigh Convention Center.

Johnson has promised a major announcements for North Carolina’s education system along with Kelly King, the CEO of BB&T.  But the event has started on a somewhat sour note with Johnson revoking tickets for teachers and public school supporters who had signed-up to attend.

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#5 – Wednesday evening the NC Budget & Tax Center hosts a special talk in Durham on economic issues facing our state.  Under the banner of Economy for All, this event seeks to shape current debate about the role of public policy in advancing more equitable economic outcomes and informing the general public about the issues that we must address to fully realize our potential for greater well-being.

The public is invited to hear from Professor Sandy Darity about his extensive work on advancing an equitable economy in our country and the policy choices that can make that possible.

Learn how you can be part of the conversation here.

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Tina Tchen

#6 – The Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama speaks Thursday at Duke University.

During her eight years at the White House, Tina Tchen served as chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, special assistant to President Barack Obama, and the executive director of the Council on Women and Girls, leading the first-ever White House Summit on Working Families and the first-ever United State of Women Summit.

Tchen will share her unique perspective and insights on workforce diversity and inclusion, breaking through male-dominated industries, and ending campus assault.

The event will begin at 7:00pm at the Bryan Center Reynolds Industries Theater in Durham.

Environment

Worried about your well water? Scientists are offering free tests this month.

Environmental scientists from Virginia Tech and UNC Chapel Hill are offering free well water testing from Feb. 20 to 27 to any resident or business using a private well. According to a press release from the scientists, the samples will be analyzed for metals such as lead, copper, arsenic and chromium. Anyone in and near Iredell County can request testing, and you do not have to live in the communities where pick up locations are available. However, limited number of kits are available, so they will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Detailed sampling instructions will be provided. Confidential water quality results will be mailed to residents’ homes.

The sampling is similar to that conducted in Robeson County after Hurricane Florence.

Questions: Contact Andrew George at andrewg@unc.edu or 919-966-7839 or Kelsey Pieper at kpieper@vt.edu or 518-928-0177.

Here is the schedule:

WHERE TO PICK UP SAMPLING BOTTLES

Feb. 20-27, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.: Iredell County Health Department, 318 Turnersburg Hwy, Statesville

Mooresville: Government Center South, 610 E. Center Ave.

Statesville: Building Standards Division, 349 N. Center St.

Feb. 27, 5-7:30 p.m.: Rocky Mount United Methodist Church, 1739 Perth Road, Mooresville

WHERE AND WHEN TO RETURN SAMPLES FOR ANALYSIS

All samples must be returned on Thursday, Feb. 28, 6-9 a.m., at Rocky Mount United Methodist Church