A man who worked as an “independent contractor” for Republican Mark Harris’ campaign in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District is a convicted felon who faced jail time for fraud and perjury, according to court records.
Over the last two decades, he has been paid by at least nine candidates, all for get-out-the-vote work, according to state records.
Leslie McCrae Dowless was convicted of felony fraud in 1992 in Iredell County, according to court records. Dowless and his wife were accused of taking out an insurance policy on a dead man and collecting nearly $165,000 from his death, according to a 1991 Fayetteville Observer article. He served more than six months of a two-year prison sentence, according to court records.
Dowless, now 62, was convicted of felony perjury in 1990, according to court records.
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The results of Harris’ apparent victory over Democrat Dan McCready in November’s election have not been certified by the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement. The nine-member board has twice declined to certify the results and will hold an evidentiary hearing this month due to “claims of numerous irregularities and concerted fraudulent activities related to absentee mail ballots,” according to Joshua Malcolm, the board’s vice chair.
Dowless was paid by the Harris campaign as a contractor for the candidate’s top consultant, according to The Charlotte Observer.
“He was an independent contractor who worked on grassroots for the campaign, independent of the campaign ... as he’s done for a number of campaigns over the years,” said Andy Yates, Harris’ top strategist and the founder of Red Dome Group.
In an affidavit given to the Democratic Party, Dwight Sheppard, a fire investigator in Bladen County, said he believes Dowless is in the thick of the controversy. Dowless has denied any wrongdoing to The Charlotte Observer. He could not be reached on Monday by phone or on Sunday at an address listed for him in voting records.
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Barbie Silvas, a Bladenboro resident, said people came around her apartment complex offering to help residents vote absentee.
“They would say, ‘I’m here for McCrae with the voting thing,’” she told The News & Observer.
Silvas said she voted absentee.
Dowless is the vice chair of the Bladen Soil and Water Conservation District, an elected position. He is a registered Republican, but had voted in Democratic primaries until 2016, according to elections records.
In the primary, Harris won 437 absentee votes in Bladen to just 17 for Pittenger. In the general election, Harris won 420 absentee votes to McCready’s 258 in the county. The number of mail-in absentee ballots was higher in Bladen County than in more populous neighboring counties Robeson and Cumberland.
In the 2016 congressional primary, Dowless worked for Todd Johnson. Johnson got 221 absentee votes to 4 for Harris and 1 for Pittenger. In the district as a whole, Johnson finished third.
In 2016, Dowless claimed irregularities in mail-in absentee ballots from Bladen County. The state board voted to dismiss Dowless’ protests.
‘He didn’t come in in a three-piece suit’
In 2017, Republican businessman Pete Givens launched a campaign for the Charlotte City Council seat in District 2, traditionally a Democratic stronghold. Turnout for off-year City Council elections is usually in the low double-digits, so Givens said he decided to try a different strategy. If people wouldn’t show up on Election Day, maybe they would vote for him via absentee ballot.
“Nobody gave me a chance in the world to win District 2 in Charlotte,” Givens said. “I’m thinking, how is there a chance to win this district? Getting people to vote, bottom line.”
When he told his pastor, Harris, of his plans to run, he said Harris encouraged him. And he said Harris introduced him to Dowless, who was known for getting out absentee votes.
“He didn’t know the details of it, and meeting (Dowless), we were learning of what he did,” Givens said.
He said Dowless told him to find potential supporters by knocking on their doors and encouraging them to request absentee ballots if they weren’t going to vote on Election Day. Hopefully, a strong turnout of absentee ballots could make up for a weak in-person showing. Campaign records show Givens paid Dowless $800 in May 2017 for consulting fees.
“I was contracted with him for a brief time, very brief,” Givens said. “Probably no more than six weeks.”
Givens said that Dowless never told him to go back and collect absentee ballots or get his campaign workers to turn them in to the Board of Elections for voters — forbidden under North Carolina law.
“You can’t touch the ballots,” Givens said. “He never told me to do that, said ‘this is what you’ve got to do.’”
Asked if his campaign would have done that, Givens responded forcefully.
“Heck no,” he said. “When I heard reports of what’s happened in Bladen County, that people were going back and picking these up, you don’t do that ... If somebody sent somebody to go back and pick up a ballot from anybody, that’s wrong.”
Givens said he met with Dowless at the Mecklenburg Board of Elections and checked with Michael Dickerson, the county’s director of elections, to make sure the tactics were legal. Dickerson said he recalled the meeting, but not the exact substance of it. He said if the campaign had mentioned any forbidden tactics, like picking up absentee by mail ballots from voters, he would have told them that’s not allowed, but nothing like that stood out in his memory.
Dickerson said it was his first time meeting Dowless. The consultant from Bladen County stood out because he was different from most of the more polished political professionals who work in Mecklenburg.
“He didn’t come in in a three-piece suit, let’s put it that way,” Dickerson said. “He was sort of a country folk kind of guy.”
Givens said he and his campaign volunteers didn’t have much luck reaching voters on the weekends when they knocked on doors. Dowless told him he needed to go during the week. Givens said he couldn’t do that because of his work obligations.
“He said, ‘I’ll come down there,’” said Givens. “He never showed up. At that point, we dissolved our relationship.”
In the end, Givens lost the race to Justin Harlow, garnering just 19 percent of the vote. He received only 39 absentee-by-mail votes.
“It wasn’t worth the time or effort,” Givens said.
A News & Observer analysis of data on mail-in ballots in the district found:
▪ Across the 9th district, which stretches from Charlotte to Fayetteville along North Carolina’s southern border, 24 percent of the requested mail-in ballots were unreturned. In Robeson County, 64 percent of mail-in ballots requested did not make it back to elections officials. In Bladen County, the figure was 40 percent.
▪ The unreturned ballots are disproportionately associated with minority voters. More than 40 percent of the ballots requested by African Americans and more than 60 percent of those requested by American Indians did not make it back to elections officials. For white voters, that figure was just 17 percent.
▪ In Bladen County, the breakdown for African Americans and American Indians generally reflected the district-wide figures. But in Robeson County, 75 percent of the mail-in ballots requested by African Americans and 69 percent of the mail-in ballots requested by American Indians were listed as unreturned.
▪ In other counties hard-hit by Hurricane Florence, as Bladen and Robeson were, the share of unreturned mail-in ballots was not as high. In Columbus County, 29 percent of the mail-in ballots requested were unreturned. In Pender County, the figure was 18 percent.
The analysis excluded data on voters who requested more than one ballot.