North Carolina

'I love my dad': Mark Harris' son raised red flags about political operative

RALEIGH, N.C. — The Republican in the last undecided U.S. congressional election ignored repeated warnings from his son against hiring a shady political operator now accused of illegally collecting voter's ballots in rural Bladen County and casting the GOP campaign into limbo, the younger man testified Wednesday.

[SPECIAL SECTION: District 9 investigation]

Contradicting congressional candidate Mark Harris' public statements that he never suspected his campaign deployed an operative in rural Bladen County who collected ballots by the bundle and turned them in when he wanted, John Harris testified at a special state elections board hearing that he'd warned his father about Leslie McCrae Dowless' operation repeatedly since mid-2016.

>> Channel 9 government reporter Joe Bruno and anchor Allison Latos are attending the hearing. Follow them both on Twitter for real-time updates.

Mark Harris led Democrat Dan McCready after November's election, but the race wasn't certified after allegations against a Harris contractor who focused on mail-in ballots in two rural counties.

Mark Harris said he sought out and hired political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless because he delivered votes, including for a Republican rival in the 2016 GOP primary. Mark Harris said he discussed with an attorney after that primary whether to challenge Dowless' incredible results for a GOP rival with mail-in ballots in Bladen County. Dowless' methods in the 2016 general election were referred to federal prosecutors, who took no action.

On the stand Wednesday, John Harris described Dowless as a “shady character” and said emails between him and his father show they discussed North Carolina law surrounding absentee ballots.

"I thought everything McCrae Dowless was doing was illegal, and I was right," John Harris said.

Despite his concerns, John Harris said his father hired Dowless.

Dowless conducted an illegal and well-funded ballot-harvesting operation last year, North Carolina's elections director said Monday. Dowless' workers in rural Bladen County testified at a special state elections board hearing that they were directed to forge signatures, collect blank or incomplete ballots voters handed over, and even fill in votes for local candidates who hadn't earned them.

John Harris said he first had suspicions in Bladen County when he analyzed the 2016 primary results and saw huge absentee voting numbers for candidate Todd Johnson. He said he sent an email with those questionable results to his father.

That contradicts the several times Mark Harris said he had no previous warning about Dowless.

John Harris, who is also an assistant U.S. attorney, testified that he didn’t know his father met with Dowless about working on the 2018 campaign until after it happened.

He said his father believed Dowless’ explanation that his workers only got voters to request ballots then returned to encourage their vote, not collect them.

He also testified that he assumed his father or Red Dome, the political consulting company which paid Dowless, would oversee his absentee ballot program and ensure it was legal.

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He stated that Dowless was paid as an independent contractor through Red Dome to add a layer of separation from the Harris campaign because of the concerns he raised to his father.

John Harris’ testimony came to an emotional end when he stated that he loves his parents and thought they made mistakes.

“I love my dad and I love my mom. I certainly have no vendetta against them. I have no family scores to settle,” John Harris said. “I believe they made mistakes in this process and they certainly did things differently than I would have done them.”

Mark Harris was brought to tears as his son made those remarks.

Mark Harris is expected to take the stand on Thursday morning. His attorney, David Freedman, told Channel 9 they took no issue with the younger Harris’ testimony. Freedman said Harris will take the oath and tell the truth.

“There’s been a lot said by a lot of different people in this, tomorrow when he testifies under he will be truthful, and you can make your determination,” Freedman said.

The elections board is expected to either declare Harris the winner in the 9th Congressional District or order a new election after the multi-day hearing.

[RELATED: North Carolina elections board weighs re-doing marred District 9 election]

McCready has asked the state elections board to order a new election or leave the decision to the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives, which the constitution makes the final judge of the elections and qualifications of its members.

“His son is raising red flag after red flag after red flag and Dr. Harris is finding a way to justify hiring McCrae Dowless,” Dan McCready attorney, Marc Elias, said. “I think the truth of this is pretty well laid out.”

Elias called John Harris’ testimony on Wednesday devastating.

Mark Harris’ attorney Alexander Dale said that a new election would punish hundreds of thousands of voters whose choices weren't in doubt. The elections board should declare Mark Harris the winner and push prosecutors to act against those who broke laws protecting election integrity, Dale said.

Mark Harris "has absolutely nothing to hide. He was told from Day 1 that everything about this was legal," Dale said. "He heard nothing that it wasn't until we heard the testimony (Monday), which certainly calls that into question.

Andy Yates, the political consultant who paid McCrae Dowless more than $130,000, spent Wednesday morning being questioned by attorneys for Democrat Dan McCready and Republican Mark Harris.

Yates testified that he did not conduct a background check on Dowless.

Yates also stated that Dowless did not provide documentation or invoices for his expenses. Yates paid him based on verbal accounts of what Dowless was owed.

According to Yates, Dowless was paid $4 for every absentee ballot request for he collected in the primary election and $5 for every absentee ballot request form in the general election.

Channel 9's government reporter Joe Bruno and anchor Allison Latos were in the courtroom as attorneys focused their questions on what Yates knew about political operative McCrae Dowless' criminal past and the strategy behind his absentee ballot efforts.

Latos said Yates continued to deny knowing about Dowless' felony convictions and accusations that Dowless' workers were paid cash to sign as witnesses and illegally collect voters' ballots.

"I've had several clients who had contractors before I got involved in their campaigns. Based on what Dowless told me, I had no reason to believe he was running an unlawful absentee ballot program," said Yates.

When the attorney for McCready's campaign asked Yates whether someone who hired a person to engage in illegal practices should go to jail, Yates replied, "Yes. If someone lied to them and told them they weren't engaging in them and they didn't know they can't be held responsible for that."

Channel 9 also learned the Mark Harris campaign still owes Andy Yates' company, Red Dome, approximately $50,000.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)