North Carolina congressional candidate Mark Harris admitted Friday that he had personally hired the aide who is now at the center of an inquiry into whether the election was tainted by fraud, saying he had no inklings of wrongdoing during the campaign.
Harris, a Republican whose 900-vote lead in the race for a congressional seat was called into question after the state’s election board declined to certify it amid fraud allegations, spoke a day after The Washington Post reported that he had chosen to hire the aide, Leslie McCrae Dowless, for an absentee ballot and get-out-the-vote operation in the southern part of the state.
The interview was Harris’s first since the election fraud allegations were made public. It is now the subject of multiple probes and has drawn attention from around the country.
Witnesses have described in interviews and affidavits the beginnings of an operation centered on Dowless in which absentee ballots, sometimes incomplete and unsealed, were collected from voters, which is illegal in the state. And investigators are looking into whether Dowless or anyone working for him discarded the ballots.
But in the interview with WBTV, a CBS affiliate in Charlotte, Harris said the operation he had hired Dowless to do was supposed to be completely legal.
Harris said he had been put in touch with Dowless after learning that the operative had been involved in an absentee ballot operation for a candidate in the 2016 congressional primary, in which Harris came in second place. Dowless had worked for Todd Johnson, the candidate who came in last, and apparently helped him gain an unusually high number of absentee ballots.
“Johnson beat me significantly in that county and with absentee ballots. And I remember looking at that and going, wow, that’s unusual,” Harris told reporter Nick Ochsner.
Harris said that a friend of his, former judge Marion Warren, offered to put him in touch with Dowless.
“He told me that McCrae was a guy from Bladen County, he was a good ol’ boy that knew Bladen County politics, that he, you know, did things right and that he knew election law better than just about anybody he knew of,” Harris said.
Dowless has a criminal record, including felony convictions for fraud and perjury and a misdemeanor charge for passing a worthless check in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Harris said Dowless described the absentee-ballot and get-out-the-vote program as one that fell within legal bounds.
“He said that he hired individuals that worked for him that went out and canvassed door to door trying to encourage people to be involved and were they willing to fill out an absentee ballot request form,” Harris said. “And they would fill out the absentee ballot request form, and they would take it and return it to the board of elections.”
The second phase of the effort involved following up with people once they received their ballots and offering them assistance filling it out, including being one of the two witnesses required if the ballot is not notarized.
“I remember him saying specifically that they were not to take a ballot, they were not to touch a ballot,” he said. “In fact, he used the illustration that I still recall, that I don’t care if it’s a 95-year-old woman in a wheelchair or a walker, you cannot take her ballot.”
Collecting absentee ballots for strangers is illegal in the state of North Carolina.
Harris said he was not aware of any indications that showed anything illegal. He said Dowless had been vouched for by “a number of other leaders,” saying that Harris had first met him in the company of a Bladen County commissioner, Ray Britt, and county GOP chairman Walter McDuffie, among others.
“I had no reason to think what he was doing was illegal,” Harris said.
McDuffie told The Post this week that he had warned the Harris campaign about Dowless’s criminal record. And people familiar with the matter told The Post that Harris was warned about possible fraud on primary day in June 2016, and was told Johnson’s absentee vote lead could only be explained by something shady. Harris was not asked about these assertions in the WBTV interview.
The North Carolina congressional race, the last undecided federal seat in the country, is the subject of multiple probes, including those by the state elections board and local and federal law enforcement offices. Depending on the findings, election officials may call for a new election.
On Wednesday, the state legislature passed a bill requiring a new primary if the state elections board orders a new election in the 9th District — allowing Republicans to replace Harris on the ballot.
Harris said he was at the orientation for freshman lawmakers on Capitol Hill in Washington when the news dropped that the elections board had declined to certify the race.
He admitted that he was unsure if his campaign would be exonerated of any wrongdoing.
“I hope so. I mean, I don’t know. It is an investigation. I know what I was told. I know the absentee ballot program that we entered into,” he said. “And my hope is that McCrae hasn’t done anything wrong."
He added: "I don’t know that.”
Dowless did not return a request for comment left on his voice mail.
Beth Reinhard contributed to this report.