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Son of North Carolina GOP candidate expressed concerns about operative at center of disputed congressional election

Son of North Carolina GOP candidate expressed concerns about operative at center of disputed congressional election
At the North Carolina State Bar in Raleigh, N.C., Mark Harris, Republican candidate in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District race, listens on Feb. 20, 2019, to testimony during the third day of a public evidentiary hearing on voting irregularities. (Travis Long / Associated Press)

The son of the Republican in the country's last undecided congressional election testified Wednesday that he warned his parents that he thought the North Carolina political operative now accused of illegally collecting voter's ballots used shady methods and should be avoided.

John Harris testified at a state elections board hearing into ballot fraud allegations that he warned his father well before Mark Harris launched his campaign that he didn't trust contractor Leslie McCrae Dowless. John Harris said he thinks Dowless lied about his methods and that his parents believed him.

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"They believed that the process that he was undertaking was legal," he said of his parents. "I think they were lied to and they believed the person who lied to them."

Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes out of about 280,000 cast in November's election, but the race wasn't certified after allegations against the contractor Dowless focused scrutiny on mail-in ballots in two rural counties.

John Harris, who was working at a law firm during most of the election cycle, testified that he served as a "sounding board" and reviewed some information in an informal capacity for the campaign. More recently, Harris has worked since October 2018 as a federal prosecutor in the same office that received evidence about Dowless' potentially illegal conduct in 2016. No charges have been filed. He said he was testifying in his capacity as a private citizen and not as a Justice Department employee.

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. 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.

Mark Harris has previously said he sought out and hired Dowless because he delivered votes, including for a Republican rival in the 2016 GOP primary. 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.

Prior to that, Dowless had felony convictions for insurance fraud and perjury, but Harris has said his consultants missed those charges while looking into Dowless' background.

John Harris testified that he initially warned his parents about Dowless after reviewing data from his father's 2016 primary loss. Mark Harris had lost a Republican primary that June in which GOP rival Todd Johnson, who used Dowless in that campaign, scored 98% of the mail-in ballots cast in Bladen County.

In November 2016, John Harris forwarded a Republican fundraising email amid a vote-counting fight in the close North Carolina governor's race. The email claimed that a Democratic Party voting fraud scheme in Bladen County had been uncovered.

Mark Harris reacted to the email with a reply to his son: "Amen! But interestingly enough, the guy who made the claim, Dowess (sic), is the same guy that Johnson paid to run the ‘absentee ballot program’ for him! Guess he didn't like the Dems cutting into his business!"

North Carolina's elections director said Monday that Dowless conducted an illegal and well-funded ballot-harvesting operation while working for Harris during the 2018 election cycle. Dowless' workers in rural Bladen County testified at the 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.

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