POLITICS

Key Figure In North Carolina Election Fraud Probe Says He Had No Idea About Alleged Wrongdoing

Andy Yates said he didn't ask for documentation about the work of the operative under scrutiny during a congressional campaign.

The consultant who paid out over $130,000 to a North Carolina political operative suspected of coordinated election fraud said Tuesday he had no indication the man was engaged in suspect activity but also conceded he kept little documentation of his work and expenses. The operative was personally hired by Mark Harris, a Republican candidate for Congress, the consultant said.

The testimony from the consultant, Andy Yates, is important because he served as a key link between the operative, McCrae Dowless, and Harris. Yates testified for several hours as part of an ongoing public hearing in front of the North Carolina Board of Elections on Tuesday. The board is probing whether Dowless engaged in election fraud by coordinating an effort to collect absentee ballots from voters. Harris currently leads Democrat Dan McCready in the race by 905 votes, but hasn’t been seated in Congress amid the investigation. If the board finds enough irregularities to “taint” the outcome of the election, it can order a new one.

Yates’ firm, the Red Dome Group, paid Dowless for his campaign work, but in his testimony, Yates made it clear Harris had personally hired Dowless. Yates said that by the time he was hired in mid-2017, Harris had already tapped Dowless for absentee ballot work. (Harris has said he hired Dowless because of his reputation for robust work.) When Yates and Dowless met for the first time, Dowless explained how he had a system and workers to drive up requests for absentee ballots. He said Dowless specifically told him that he instructed his workers not to touch absentee ballots that people filled out.

Assisting voters with requesting absentee ballots is legal in North Carolina. Nothing about the program raised a red flag for him, Yates said. Dowless sounded like someone who was organized and knew the law. When he was asked about earlier testimony from a Dowless employee who said he paid people to collect actual absentee ballots ― a violation of North Carolina law ― Yates said he was stunned to learn Dowless had done that.

“If it had ever been evident to me during the campaign I would have immediately cut off all contact with Mr. Dowless. He would have never been paid by Red Dome again. I would have told Dr. Harris to fire him immediately,” he said. “I care deeply about the integrity of our democracy and I’m not going to put up with that junk, and that frankly crap, excuse my language. I work too hard to build my business to let one person lie to me and do something wrong.”

In total, Harris’ campaign paid Yates’ Red Dome Group over $408,000 during the campaign, according to The Charlotte Observer. Yates testified Tuesday that all campaign staff was paid through Red Dome. Dowless, he said, preferred to pick up his checks in person and was willing to drive hours to Yates’ office to do so.

Throughout the campaign, Yates’ Red Dome Group paid Dowless a monthly fee for his work as well as $4 for each absentee ballot request form he turned in during the primary and $5 for each during the general election. He also reimbursed Dowless for expenses like office space and other services. Red Dome paid Dowless $131,357.57 between July 2017 and election day 2018, according to records compiled by the state board.

But Yates testified that there was never a formal agreement, written or otherwise, with Dowless. Yates said he didn’t know how many employees worked for Dowless and took him at his word when he said how many forms he had collected and how much he had been reimbursed for and didn’t ask for documentation or receipts. The Harris campaign seemed fine with that, he said.

On Monday, Kim Strach, the executive director of the state board, said investigators had developed evidence showing Dowless ran a “coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced” illegal absentee ballot effort. Lisa Britt, who worked for Dowless and collected absentee ballots, said workers were paid both to get people to request absentee ballots and then to collect the ballots. She said employees filled out downballot races on unsealed ballots they collected that voters had left blank so officials at the board of elections wouldn’t get suspicious as to why so many people were only voting in certain contests. She said Dowless instructed her and other workers to take a number of steps to avoid raising red flags with the board of elections, including only mailing small batches of ballots from post offices near where the voters who filled them out lived.

Yates said while Harris had told him Dowless had some criminal charges from decades ago, he was unaware that those charges included fraud and perjury. Had he known about those charges, the firm wouldn’t have hired him because it would not have looked good for his business or the campaign.

Yates also described Dowless as a “political junkie” who would call him almost daily to talk both about the campaign and his personal life. He said Dowless was “needy” and wanted validation that Harris was happy with his work.

“Politics was his thing, he didn’t have anything else going on,” Yates said.

CONVERSATIONS