Elec­tion fraud probe fo­cuses on Char­lotte-area con­sul­tant

The News & Observer - - Triangle & N.c. - BY ELY POR­TILLO AND PAUL A. SPECHT ely­por­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com as­[email protected]­sob­server.com Por­tillo: 704-358-5041

Since Andy Yates co­founded Red Dome Group in 2013, the po­lit­i­cal con­sult­ing firm’s client ros­ter has grown to in­clude every­one from city coun­cil can­di­dates in lo­cal races to a pow­er­ful con­gres­sional rep­re­sen­ta­tive and the 2016 Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion.

Now, the Cor­nelius­based firm is at the cen­ter of the grow­ing scan­dal in­volv­ing pos­si­ble elec­tion tam­per­ing in the 9th District con­gres­sional race. Repub­li­canMark Har­ris paid Red Dome $428,908 for cam­paign work dur­ing the pri­mary and gen­eral elec­tion. And Red Dome hired McCrae Dow­less, the Bladen County po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tive who’s been ac­cused of col­lect­ing ab­sen­tee bal­lots en masse — for­bid­den un­der N.C. law.

Wed­nes­day, the N.C. State Board of Elec­tions con­firmed that it’s sub­poe­naed Red Dome, along with the Har­ris cam­paign. Yates didn’t re­turn mes­sages seek­ing com­ment this week, but he’s pre­vi­ously ac­knowl­edged hir­ing Dow­less.

“He was an in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tor who worked on grass­roots for the cam­paign, in­de­pen­dent of the cam­paign,” Yates told the Ob­server last week.

His big­gest sin­gle client ap­pears to be Har­ris, ac­cord­ing to cam­paign fi­nance records. Since 2016, the N.C. Repub­li­can Party has also paid him sub­stan­tial amounts, mostly dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion cy­cle, to­tal­ing $347,541.

The most re­cent pay­ment was a $17,710 check on Oct. 8.

Dal­las Wood­house, the party’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, said the GOP paid the money from its state fund so that Red Dome could help state-level can­di­dates.

“This pay­ment was for mail ser­vices re­lated to lo­cal can­di­dates at the state level,” Wood­house said in an in­ter­view. He said the party had lit­tle di­rect en­gage­ment with Red Dome.

“We had noth­ing to do with the ac­tiv­i­ties in ques­tions and didn’t fund any ab­sen­tee bal­lot work in that area in ques­tion,” Wood­house said. “We are as hor­ri­fied read­ing these news ar­ti­cles as every­one else.

“We think there should be a full and com­plete in­ves­ti­ga­tion. We want there to be con­fi­dence that our can­di­date got more le­git­i­mate votes.”

Asked about Red Dome’s rep­u­ta­tion as a con­sul­tant, Wood­house said, “It’s clearly not what it was.”

Over the past five years, Yates has built a rep­u­ta­tion as a po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tor who was pro­fi­cient in old and new tech­niques, such as di­rect mail and so­cial me­dia.

“I’ve known Andy Yates for a num­ber of years,” said state Rep. Ja­son Saine, a Lin­col­nton Repub­li­can who has paid Red Dome about $25,000. “I got good mail pieces out and good on­line ads. Their work for me has been great.”

Yates co-founded Red Dome in 2013 with Todd Poole, who left the firm after less than a year to be­come ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the N.C. Repub­li­can Party. He now works for Rep. Ted Budd.

Al­though he’s worked mostly for Repub­li­can can­di­dates, Yates has oc­ca­sion­ally done work for the other side.

“I’m a bleed­ing heart lib­eral Demo­crat,” said David­son Mayor Rusty Knox, who de­feated the long­time in­cum­bent as a first-time can­di­date in 2017. He paid Red Dome $6,000, and said Yates helped craft tar­geted ads for him on­line. Knox was ini­tially a bit skep­ti­cal of work­ing with Yates.

“He does have a Ron­ald Rea­gan bob­ble­head and a pic­ture of Ron­ald Rea­gan on horse­back” in his of­fice, Knox said. But Yates de­liv­ered the ads well, Knox said. And they got along. Un­like some po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives who en­joy the brawl­ing, bare-knuckle aspects of a nasty cam­paign, Knox said Yates is more af­fa­ble and laid­back.

“I liked him,” said Knox. “He’s a mat­ter-of-fact guy.”

Yates, a Wake For­est grad­u­ate and N.C. na­tive, has gar­nered at­ten­tion for his suc­cess­ful cam­paign­ing. The Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of Po­lit­i­cal Con­sul­tants named him a mem­ber of its 2018 “40 un­der 40” class.

He’s worked for U.S. Rep. Mark Mead­ows, who has paid Red Dome $52,850 since 2014, for cam­paign ex­penses as­so­ci­ated with ad­ver­tis­ing and on­line mar­ket­ing.

A Mead­ows spokesman didn’t re­turn a mes­sage seek­ing more in­for­ma­tion about work Red Dome did for the con­gress­man. Red Dome’s client list also in­cludes work on be­half of N.C. Trea­surer Dale Fol­well, state Rep. Andy Dulin, the 2016 Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion and Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion.

In 2018, Red Dome worked for Ohio Repub­li­can Melanie Leneghan, who lost a con­gres­sional pri­mary to Troy Balder­son. She paid Red Dome $51,750, cam­paign fi­nance records show. She lost by 653 votes and sued to over­turn the re­sults due to al­leged vote tam­per­ing, ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports, but her com­plaint was thrown out by the Ohio Supreme Court.

But Har­ris, who nar­rowly beat out in­cum­bent Rep. Robert Pit­tenger with 828 votes in the May pri­mary and now has a 905-vote mar­gin over Demo­crat Dan McCready, stood to be the group’s most high pro­file suc­cess story. That’s in jeop­ardy now, as Democrats in Congress have said the U.S. House might refuse to seat Har­ris should he come in Jan­uary, and the N.C. State Board of Elec­tions could po­ten­tially or­der a new vote for the 9th District.

It’s un­clear whether Yates sought out Dow­less. To the Wash­ing­ton Post, he de­nied hav­ing Dow­less im­prop­erly col­lect bal­lots and said Har­ris “was aware of Red Dome’s re­la­tion­ship with Mr. Dow­less and be­lieves like I do that Mr. Dow­less oper­ated within the bounds of the law.”

Carolyn Jus­tice, a former leg­is­la­tor who Red Dome lists as a lead con­sul­tant, said she doesn’t know Dow­less or any­thing about the in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­cause she didn’t work on the Har­ris cam­paign.

“I am not a prin­ci­pal of Red Dome. I just do cam­paigns on the coast. I’ve never been on a cam­paign in Robe­son or Bladen county, as far as I can re­mem­ber,” Jus­tice said. “I’m to­tally dis­con­nected from that. And I never worked on the Mark Har­ris cam­paign.”

Red Dome also worked for Sher­iff Jim McVicker, who won re­elec­tion in Bladen County. He paid the com­pany $8,000 for “get out to vote” ef­forts, ac­cord­ing to fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sures. McVicker also paid Dow­less $8,800 di­rectly, also for “get out to vote.”

In 2015, trade pub­li­ca­tion Cam­paigns & Elec­tions Mag­a­zine named Yates a “Ris­ing Star.” Asked what his ad­vice was for as­pir­ing con­sul­tants, Yates de­scribed “The sin­gle best piece of ad­vice that I’ve got­ten.”

“It’s just as im­por­tant who you choose not to work with as who you do choose to work with,” Yates re­called Jack Hawke, the long­time chair­man of the N.C. Repub­li­can Party who died in 2013, told him. “One eth­i­cally chal­lenged can­di­date can bring down all of your hard work.”

SCREEN CAP­TURE 12/6/2018

Red Dome Group’s web­site, show­ing founder Andy Yates.

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