GOP was warned over N.C. vote ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties

Aides to Rep. Pit­tenger voiced con­cerns after he lost the spring pri­mary

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY AMY GARD­NER AND BETH REIN­HARD

bladen­boro, n.c. — When GOP Rep. Robert Pit­tenger lost his pri­mary by a nar­row mar­gin in May, he sus­pected some­thing was amiss.

The con­gress­man turned to a group of friends and fam­ily who had gath­ered with him on elec­tion night at a steak­house near Char­lotte and blamed the “bal­lot stuffers in Bladen,” ac­cord­ing to three peo­ple at the gath­er­ing.

Pit­tenger’s con­cern stemmed from the vote tal­lies in ru­ral Bladen County, where his chal­lenger, a pas­tor from the Char­lotte sub­urbs named Mark Har­ris, had won 437 ab­sen­tee mail-in votes. Pit­tenger, a three-term in­cum­bent, had re­ceived just 17.

In the days im­me­di­ately after the race, aides to Pit­tenger told the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the North Carolina Repub­li­can Party and a re­gional po­lit­i­cal di­rec­tor for the Na­tional Repub­li­can Con­gres­sional Com­mit­tee that they be­lieved fraud had oc­curred, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with their dis­cus­sions.

GOP of­fi­cials did lit­tle to scru­ti­nize the re­sults, in­stead turn­ing their at­ten­tion to Har­ris’s gen­eral-elec­tion cam­paign against a well-funded Demo­cratic op­po­nent, the peo­ple said.

Their ac­counts pro­vide the first in­di­ca­tion that state and na­tional Repub­li­can of­fi­cials re­ceived early warn­ings about vot­ing ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in North Caro-

lina’s 9th Con­gres­sional District, now the sub­ject of mul­ti­ple crim­i­nal probes.

A spokesman for the NRCC de­nied that Pit­tenger’s cam­paign raised the pos­si­bil­ity of fraud in the pri­mary.

Al­le­ga­tions of fraud in Novem­ber’s gen­eral elec­tion have now put the out­come of the 9th Con­gres­sional District race in limbo. State in­ves­ti­ga­tors are ex­am­in­ing the ac­tiv­i­ties of a po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tive named Les­lie McCrae Dow­less, who ran a get-out-the-vote ef­fort for the Har­ris cam­paign dur­ing the pri­mary and gen­eral elec­tions.

While the in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­tin­ues, the elec­tions board has de­clined to cer­tify the 9th District race, in which Har­ris leads Demo­crat Dan McCready by 905 votes, ac­cord­ing to un­of­fi­cial re­sults.

On Thurs­day, McCready told tele­vi­sion sta­tion WSOC that he was with­draw­ing his con­ces­sion and ac­cused Har­ris of bankrolling “crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity.”

Dow­less, who has worked on po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns in Bladen for at least a decade, touts his abil­ity to mo­bi­lize vot­ers to cast bal­lots by mail, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple who know him. He has been un­der scru­tiny by state of­fi­cials since 2016, when al­le­ga­tions sur­faced about il­le­gal bal­lot har­vest­ing in that year’s cam­paigns, lead­ing to a pub­lic hear­ing.

Dow­less, who told the Char­lotte Ob­server that he did not com­mit any wrong­do­ing, de­clined to com­ment Thurs­day. “I’m just not giv­ing any com­ment at this time,” he told re­porters and pho­tog­ra­phers in front of his house in Bladen­boro, adding, “No dis­re­spect to any­body.”

The Har­ris cam­paign has said it was not aware of any il­le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties.

Pit­tenger said Dow­less tried to sell him his ser­vices in 2016 but that he de­clined to hire the op­er­a­tive.

“I just knew I didn’t want to be in­volved with him,” Pit­tenger said. “Dow­less’s ef­forts were widely known, and we did share our con­cerns with sev­eral peo­ple,” de­clin­ing to elab­o­rate on who he spoke to or what he said.

Fo­cus on Bladen County

Since re­ports of ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in the 9th District emerged last month, GOP lead­ers in the state — in­clud­ing Dal­las Wood­house, the state GOP ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor — ini­tially played down con­cerns that laws were bro­ken. They re­peat­edly cast the sit­u­a­tion in po­lit­i­cal terms, as­sert­ing that any vot­ing ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties were not wide­spread enough to change the out­come of the elec­tion.

In re­cent days, amid mount­ing al­le­ga­tions of a bal­lot-har­vest­ing op­er­a­tion, state Repub­li­cans have shifted their rhetoric. Wood­house told The Post on Thurs­day that if the state elec­tions board can “show a sub­stan­tial like­li­hood” that pos­si­ble fraud could have changed the out­come of Novem­ber’s vote, “then we fully would sup­port a new elec­tion.”

In an in­ter­view this week, Wood­house ini­tially said he did not re­call field­ing com­plaints from Pit­tenger aides of pos­si­ble fraud after the pri­mary. But he called back a few mo­ments later to say that he did re­mem­ber hear­ing of anom­alies — and took “a cur­sory look at the end of that race at the vote to­tals.”

He re­called con­clud­ing that Har­ris had won the over­all vote with a strong show­ing from evan­gel­i­cal vot­ers, but he said: “We did not look real specif­i­cally at ab­sen­tee bal­lots.”

“If some­body said some­thing about the ab­sen­tee bal­lots, it is just very pos­si­ble that it didn’t reg­is­ter with us,” Wood­house said. “We had a lot of cam­paigns and a lot of peo­ple ex­press­ing con­cerns at the end of the elec­tion, and we were try­ing to quickly move on to the gen­eral elec­tion.”

NRCC spokesman Matt Gor­man de­nied that any­one af­fil­i­ated with the Pit­tenger cam­paign brought up pos­si­ble fraud to any­one at the com­mit­tee, in­clud­ing Tyler Foote, who ran the south­east re­gion for the NRCC.

“We had them on the phone numer­ous times, and there was no men­tion of fraud,” Gor­man said. “It’s un­for­tu­nate that there’s a re­vi­sion­ist his­tory go­ing on.”

Foote did not re­spond to mul­ti­ple re­quests for com­ment. He has been named Har­ris’s in­com­ing chief of staff, al­though whether Har­ris will be seated in Congress in Jan­uary re­mains un­cer­tain.

Pit­tenger said he did not re­call be­ing told of fraud com­plaints his ad­vis­ers made to Wood­house and Foote, and he de­clined to con­firm that he blamed “bal­lot stuffers” on elec­tion night.

But he said there was “a lot of angst” among his cam­paign aides, who “were all upset about what hap­pened.”

“I think there were a lot of frus­trated feel­ings in­side the room as we saw the re­sults come in,” he said.

The state elec­tions board is in­ves­ti­gat­ing ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in mail-in bal­lot­ing in the 9th District gen­eral elec­tion — many of them in Bladen County, which had the high­est share of mail-in votes in the district, state records show.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors have spo­ken with wit­nesses who link Dow­less to an ef­fort to col­lect ab­sen­tee bal­lots from vot­ers and are ex­am­in­ing whether he or his as­so­ciates filled out bal­lots or dis­carded them, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the probe. It is il­le­gal to col­lect or tam­per with some­one else’s bal­lot. Mul­ti­ple vot­ers said in in­ter­views that they handed over their bal­lots — some of which were not fully filled out and were left un­sealed — to peo­ple who showed up at their doors and of­fered to col­lect them. Two Bladen County women said they worked for Dow­less and went door to door ask­ing vot­ers to turn over their bal­lots, WSOC-TV in Char­lotte has re­ported.

This week, the elec­tions board is­sued sub­poe­nas to the Har­ris cam­paign and its gen­eral con­sul­tant, Red Dome Group, as well as the lo­cal sher­iff, James A. McVicker, a Repub­li­can who won re­elec­tion last month and also hired Dow­less to run his ab­sen­tee-bal­lot pro­gram, ac­cord­ing to a per­son fa­mil­iar with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The Wake County district at­tor­ney’s of­fice in Raleigh and the State Bu­reau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion are also con­duct­ing probes, Wake County District At­tor­ney Lor­rin Free­man (D) told The Post.

If the elec­tions board con­cludes that ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties tainted the re­sults of Novem­ber’s vote, it could call for a new elec­tion. The board has an­nounced plans for a hear­ing by Dec. 21.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), the in­com­ing House ma­jor­ity leader, said this week that Democrats might refuse to seat Har­ris un­til “sub­stan­tial” ques­tions about the in­tegrity of his elec­tion are re­solved. On Thurs­day, in­com­ing House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was more cau­tious, say­ing that House Democrats were await­ing the de­ter­mi­na­tion of North Carolina elec­tions of­fi­cials.

‘Look at the votes’

Since the Novem­ber elec­tion, Pit­tenger, 70, a real es­tate in­vestor who lives in Char­lotte, has hinted openly at his sus­pi­cions of wrong­do­ing. “Look at the votes. Fol­low the money,” he told the Char­lotte Ob­server last week.

Pit­tenger also told Spec­trum News that he was “fully aware” of vot­ing ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in the district, adding that there were “some pretty un­sa­vory peo­ple out there, par­tic­u­larly in Bladen County. And I didn’t have any­thing to do with them.”

Pit­tenger told The Post that after speak­ing to Dow­less for “five or 10 min­utes” in 2016, he knew he did not want to bring him onto his cam­paign.

“I didn’t want to do busi­ness with him after I met him,” Pit­tenger said. “I just didn’t like the way it sounded. But he went other places, and I knew that was go­ing to be an is­sue. But none­the­less, I was will­ing to live with” the pos­si­bil­ity that op­po­nents might hire the op­er­a­tive.

In the 2016 GOP pri­mary, Dow­less ended up work­ing for Pit­tenger chal­lenger Todd John­son, a Union County in­sur­ance sales­man, cam­paign fi­nance records show. John­son won an over­whelm­ing num­ber of mail-in bal­lots in Bladen County that spring: 211. Har­ris, who was also a can­di­date that year, logged four votes. Pit­tenger got just one, records show.

Two years later, Pit­tenger ig­nored the ad­vice of his ad­vis­ers to hire Dow­less and have him do no work, just to keep him from work­ing for his op­po­nent, ac­cord­ing to two peo­ple close to the cam­paign.

In­stead, Dow­less was hired by the Har­ris cam­paign. John Branch, Har­ris’s at­tor­ney, and Andy Yates of Red Dome, his cam­paign con­sul­tant, con­firmed in state­ments this week that Dow­less was paid for a field ef­fort but said they were not aware of any il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity.

The cam­paign “at all times be­lieved he was work­ing within the con­fines of North Carolina law,” Branch said.

In the May 8 pri­mary, Har­ris beat Pit­tenger by 828 votes — with half of his mar­gin com­ing from mail-in bal­lots in Bladen.

“Bladen County was a fac­tor” in the loss, Pit­tenger said, call­ing the sit­u­a­tion “dis­con­cert­ing.”

In last month’s gen­eral elec­tion, Har­ris drew 420 mail-in votes from Bladen com­pared with 258 for McCready, his Demo­cratic op­po­nent, state records show. In­ves­ti­ga­tors are ex­am­in­ing whether ad­di­tional mail-in votes were dis­carded and whether the al­leged bal­lot-har­vest­ing op­er­a­tion ex­tended beyond Bladen, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the probe.

State records show that a large num­ber of ab­sen­tee bal­lots across the 9th District — more than 3,400 — were re­quested by vot­ers but never re­turned.

By the time ad­vis­ers to Pit­tenger ex­pressed their frus­tra­tion to Wood­house and Foote, the cam­paign was un­wind­ing, Pit­tenger had few re­sources to put up a fight and was un­der pres­sure from other Repub­li­cans to rally around Har­ris, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the sit­u­a­tion.

Pres­sure to con­cede

By June 30, Pit­tenger’s cam­paign had just $9,179 on hand and about $792,000 in debt, much of it car­ried over from his first race in 2012, ac­cord­ing to cam­paign fi­nance records. Har­ris had $295,658 in cash, while McCready, who faced a weak op­po­nent in his pri­mary, was head­ing into the gen­eral elec­tion with $1.8 mil­lion in his cam­paign cof­fers.

“In or­der to beat Dan Mc- Cready, as strong a can­di­date as Dan McCready was, the gen­eral­elec­tion cam­paign needed to start right away,” said a per­son fa­mil­iar with the think­ing in Pit­tenger’s cam­paign and who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to de­scribe pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions. “There wasn’t time to go into a re­count and use those fi­nan­cial re­sources. All the cam­paigns were fi­nan­cially strapped. The only way to beat Dan McCready was to put our weapons down within the party. Robert, be­ing a good Repub­li­can, agreed that if he con­tin­ued to try to raise an is­sue with this, it would only hurt the Repub­li­cans’ abil­i­ties to win in the fall.”

Pit­tenger was also ham­pered by poor rap­port with his aides and other Repub­li­cans in North Carolina and Wash­ing­ton, so there was lit­tle ap­petite to take up a fight on his be­half, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the sit­u­a­tion.

The con­gress­man ini­tially de­clined to en­dorse Har­ris, say­ing that he wanted an apol­ogy for what he de­scribed as “base­less at­tacks” on his vot­ing record by the pas­tor. Pit­tenger did not men­tion elec­tion ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties. At the end of May, how­ever, Pit­tenger is­sued a state­ment sup­port­ing Har­ris. Peo­ple fa­mil­iar with his views said he did so re­luc­tantly, un­der pres­sure from GOP lead­ers.

Kevin Seifert, po­lit­i­cal di­rec­tor for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), de­nied that, say­ing he had ex­pressed sad­ness at Pit­tenger’s de­feat. “We never told him to get in line,” he said. “It was a hard-fought race.”

Now, Pit­tenger said, he’s grat­i­fied by the in­ten­si­fy­ing scru­tiny on Dow­less and his tac­tics.

“I al­ways told my peo­ple, ‘ They hadn’t been able to catch him,’ ” he said. “I never had a lot of hope see­ing a lot of res­o­lu­tion with this guy. I’m glad they’re mov­ing to­ward this now. I think it’s a healthy thing to nip this thing in the bud and re­move him from fur­ther cam­paigns.”

“If some­body said some­thing about the ab­sen­tee bal­lots, it is just very pos­si­ble that it didn’t reg­is­ter with us.” Dal­las Wood­house, North Carolina Repub­li­can Party ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor

For video, go to wapo.st/north­carolina1207.

In the con­gres­sional district’s GOP pri­mary in Bladen County, seen above, Har­ris won 437 ab­sen­tee mail-in votes. His op­po­nent, Rep. Robert Pit­tenger, re­ceived 17. At an elec­tion night event, Pit­tenger re­port­edly blamed his loss on “bal­lot stuffers.”

PHO­TOS BY JUSTIN KASE CON­DER FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Les­lie McCrae Dow­less is seen Wed­nes­day in Bladen­boro, N.C. Dow­less led a get-out-the-vote ef­fort for Repub­li­can con­gres­sional can­di­date Mark Har­ris dur­ing the spring pri­mary and gen­eral elec­tion. The Novem­ber race re­sult is yet to be cer­ti­fied due to al­le­ga­tions of fraud in­volv­ing ab­sen­tee bal­lots.

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