Top Harris political consultant ‘shocked and disturbed’ to learn of absentee ballot fraud scheme

Andy Yates, a political consultant with Red Dome Group, prepares to testify under oath during the second day of a public evidentiary hearing on the 9th Congressional District voting irregularities investigation. (Photo by Travis Long/Raleigh News and Observer)

The consultant who paid more than $130,000 to a political operative working for Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris said Tuesday he was “shocked and disturbed” to learn about a fraudulent absentee ballot scheme in Bladen and Robeson counties that benefitted the election campaign.

Andy Yates, who runs political consulting firm Red Dome Group, said he never had the first suspicion that McCrae Dowless Jr. was hiring workers to collect absentee ballots from voters in the rural areas, witness them and in some cases fill out the incomplete ones.

“If that had ever become evident to me during the campaign, I would have immediately cut off all contact with Mr. Dowless, he would have never been paid by Red Dome again [and] I would have told Dr. Harris to fire him immediately,” he said. “I care deeply about the integrity of our democracy, and I’m not going to put up with that junk, frankly crap, excuse my language. I’ve worked too hard to build my business to let one person lie to me and do something wrong that they specifically told me that they weren’t doing and ruin me and ruin my business.”

Yates has been the State Board of Elections’ most confident and prepared witness thus far. He’s also one of the only witnesses who hired an attorney, who watched the proceedings diligently from a chair nearby. Yates was on the stand for nearly four hours and is expected to continue testifying this morning.

State Board Chairman Bob Cordle said he expects Harris to testify next and indicated the evidentiary hearing could spill into Thursday before concluding.

The State Board put on witnesses Monday who told the story of how Dowless pulled off an illegal absentee ballot operation. They described unknowingly committing felonies at his direction, forging signatures, completing blank forms and mailing batches of ballots to the local boards of election.

Witnesses focused Tuesday on how early voting results — tabulated incorrectly a week before the actual election —  could have possibly been leaked and whether Harris knew about the alleged fraud.

9th Congressional district candidate Mark Harris, a Republican, speaks to attorneys during a break Tuesday at a hearing about alleged fraud during his campaign. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Harris won the 9th congressional district by 905 votes over Democratic candidate Dan McCready, but the State Board refused to certify the results because of the ongoing investigation into absentee ballot irregularities. The five-member Board will decide this week whether to certify the race or order a new election, and they’re considering more than just the math of how many votes are at issue — they are weighing whether the scope of the fraud tainted the race, casting doubt on the fairness of it.

Yates testified that he would be surprised if Harris knew about Dowless’ illegal operation. But he also said that Dowless’ hiring by the candidate was a “done deal” before Red Dome was brought on to the campaign.

Dowless, who he described as a needy man needing frequent validation and a political junkie with nothing else going on, stayed in constant contact with Yates and Harris, according to testimony. He would update them about his progress and talk to Yates about all aspects of the campaign and frequently about anything numbers related.

From the very beginning, Dowless told Yates his operation was by-the-book, and he never questioned it — but neither did Harris.

“He told me that at no time were his folks to ever touch, handle, put their hands on, collect, mail an absentee ballot,” Yates said. “He knew that was illegal and he made sure all of his folks knew that was illegal.”

Yates paid Dowless a monthly fee of $1,200 during the primary in addition to $4 for each absentee ballot request form he turned in and a monthly fee of $1,625 during the general election cycle in addition to $5 for the absentee request forms. He also reimbursed Dowless for office space and utilities, office supplies and other miscellaneous expenses. He never asked for receipts and never verified how many absentee ballot request forms Dowless told him he turned in.

“His word was good enough for Dr. Harris,” Yates said. “I felt no reason to verify it; Dr. Harris never asked me to verify it. … We had no reason to believe his numbers were off.”

Yates also didn’t think it was suspicious when Harris won 437 of the 456 absentee mail-in votes between three candidates — Dowless was hired for his ability to secure somewhat anomalous results, and just two years before had a somewhat similar outcome working for failed Republican congressional candidate Todd Johnson.

“If anything I thought that number was probably a little bit lower” based on Dowless reports of how many absentee ballot requests he turned in, Yates said of the 437 outcome.

He was taken aback by the suggestion that the State Republican Party could have kept information about Dowless’ shady practices from him or information about his pleading the 5th Amendment in a similar 2016 hearing alleging Bladen County fraud related to the Governor’s race. If the former is true, he said he would be “livid and disappointed.”

McCready’s attorney described Yates as a type of middleman — he was the vendor chosen as a paymaster, said Marc Elias after Tuesday’s hearing.

Elias said he believes the election results were tainted beyond recognition and that “Dowless was the Harris campaign.”

“You know campaigns are only a collection of people, and Mr. Dowless was those people,” he said. “He was chosen by the candidate to be part of the campaign, he was trusted by the candidate to be part of the Harris campaign, he was in regular communication with the candidate about the strategy and executing that strategy on behalf of Harris.”

Elias speculated about where the hearing will go over the next couple days. With each witness, he said, the depth and breadth of the election fraud scheme grows.

“I expect that that depth and breadth will continue to grow tomorrow, and that when the State Board is done hearing all of the evidence, it will be clear to them as it is clear to any fair-minded North Carolinian that the results of this election were irretrievably tainted by fraud and deceit and cheating on behalf of Mr. Dowless and the campaign he was working directly for and the candidate who hired him directly and with whom he was working with directly,” he added.

The hearing continues at 9:15 a.m. today, with Elias continuing questioning Yates. Follow @mel_bough for live updates.

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