RALEIGH, NC (WECT) - The first day of an evidentiary hearing ended Monday night at the North Carolina State Bar as the state board of elections weeds through the results of its election fraud investigation.
Courtroom 203C had few — if any — empty seats throughout the day as the hearing progressed.
McCrae Dowless, the man at the center of the investigation into election fraud in Bladen and Robeson counties, refused to testify, but two known associates and multiple affected voters did.
Dowless’ attorney Cynthia Singletary said her client would only testify if the state board forced him to.
After an emergency closed session to discuss state law, the board decided not to force Dowless to speak, as it could give him immunity in future criminal proceedings.
Instead, NCSBE Chair Bob Cordle said, the board would exercise its right to view Dowless’ refusal with a negative inference when making their final decision.
Dowless and his associates are accused of tampering with or destroying absentee ballots to benefit candidates he worked for, including Mark Harris in the 9th Congressional District. On the first day of the hearing, two women admitted to such.
Kim Strach, executive director for the North Carolina State Board of Elections, began the hearing in a packed Courtroom 203C in earnest by outlining the state’s findings, and previewing the evidence to come.
In a slide presentation, Strach revealed several major pieces of information, including that Red Dome Group paid McCrae Dowless more than $131,000 during the 2018 election cycle, with more than $83,000 of that coming during the general election.
Strach said the board staff has found evidence of a “coordinated” and “substantially resourced” absentee ballot scheme in Bladen County and Robeson County, along with evidence the activity went beyond those two.
The footstool that is the board’s evidentiary case has three main legs: absentee ballot irregularities, the disclosure of early voting totals in Bladen County, and the security of the Bladen County Board of Elections building.
While Dowless refused to testify, known associate Lisa Britt did take the stand.
Britt was identified by voters in Bladen County as one of the people working for McCrae Dowless during the election, and is the former stepdaughter of Dowless.
Britt originally told WBTV that she had not done anything illegal during the campaign — including collecting ballots — but she said during her testimony that the information she gave in her interview was false.
Britt said she and others were paid for request forms returned, which is legal, but were also paid for the number of ballots returned — an act that would be in violation of state law.
During the election, she said she and others would bring certain ballots back to Dowless’ office or home to be witnessed and mailed off. If the ballots were unsealed and it was clear not all of the ovals were filled in, Britt said the workers would fill in the remaining races.
This, along with using the same color ink to witness ballots, placing stamps in a particular way and using specific post offices, was a way to keep election officials from noticing, Britt said.
Britt said later on during questioning that Dowless asked her on Thursday, Feb. 14 to plead her 5th amendment rights rather than testify at the hearing. She said he had also told the group of workers to “stick together” when the allegations came out.
After the state’s questioning and in what was occasionally a heated back and forth, attorney for Dan McCready, Marc Elias, cross-examined Britt.
Attorney for Mark Harris, David Freedman, also questioned Britt but focused on her testimony about Lola Wooten and Horace Munn. Both Wooten and Munn have been linked to the Bladen County Improvement Association — a political action committee that promotes democratic candidates.
Britt had said during her questioning from the state board that at one point a ballot for Emma Shipman, an elderly woman in Bladen County, had to be returned to the voter after Britt picked it up.
She said Dowless received a call from Munn, who said Shipman was not a voter Dowless should have been working to get.
Britt said keeping a list of the voters the BCIA were attempting to encourage to vote absentee was Dowless’ “secret weapon,” and that both sides for the most part kept out of each other’s way during the campaign.
After being cautioned by the chair, Freedman said he was advancing his line of questioning into the BCIA to demonstrate that the number of absentee ballots not returned in Bladen County was not only the result of any activity by Dowless, but by the BCIA as well.
Britt testified for between three and four hours before leaving the stand.
The second witness called by the NCSBE staff was another person who said she worked with Dowless — Kelly Hendrix.
Hendrix became emotional when asked how she knew Dowless — she said she met him while at her job at a local fast food restaurant, and that he was kind to her and would occasionally give her rides to and from work.
Hendrix said during the 2018 election, she would pick up absentee request forms and ballots for Dowless, but that unlike Britt — who was paid $125 to $150 per 50 — Dowless simply reimbursed her for expenses.
She said she also witnessed ballot envelopes, including ones she did not see the voter sign, and said she did not sign the envelopes at the same time her co-signer, James (Jimmy) Singletary did.
Hendrix said to her knowledge, Dowless was mailing in the ballots she returned to him. She also said she had little knowledge about who he was working for, other than the Mark Harris signs he had on his car.
Lisa Britt’s mother, and Dowless’ ex-wife, Sandra Dowless took the stand next.
While the two have been divorced since the early 1990s, Sandra Dowless said she was staying with McCrae Dowless in April 2018.
During that time, Sandra Dowless said a meeting was held where Dowless invited over several friends and associates, including Jeff Smith.
While she was not a part of the meeting, Sandra Dowless said she overheard a conversation where Dowless and who she believed to be Smith discussed a plan to collect unsealed absentee ballots.
Later, she said, Dowless showed her a piece of paper Smith had allegedly signed outlining such a plan, calling it “an insurance policy.”
Sandra Dowless said that made her uncomfortable, because she believed a person’s ballot should be private.
She said she later overheard a phone conversation between Dowless and Mark Harris. Throughout the day, Dowless’ tendency to talk to people over speakerphone became a key point.
Sandra Dowless said she heard Dowless tell Harris that he was in the lead in Bladen County leading up to the primary. Harris allegedly expressed satisfaction with that statement and asked how Dowless knew. Sandra Dowless said Dowless told Harris he had been to the Bladen County Board of Elections office. Harris then allegedly asked if that was legal.
The specific way Dowless knew Harris was in the lead became a major point of cross-examination, with both Elias and Freedman further questioning Sandra Dowless about the details, which she said she didn’t know.
The state board also called two voters to the stand to testify about how they believe their ballots were affected.
Precious Hall and Kimberly Robinson were asked to detail their experiences, both with Lisa Britt and McCrae Dowless.
Robinson said she gave her blank, unsealed ballot to two women, one of whom she believed was Lisa Britt, and the other she believed was Ginger Eason.
She said she had done this before — as she was unfamiliar with Bladen County politics and trusted Dowless’ opinion on the candidates.
Hall said she received an absentee ballot even though she doesn’t recall requesting one. She said people came to her home asking about the ballot, so she filled it out and gave it to them.
Monday’s proceedings barely touched the list of more than 60 people that could be called to testify in the case.
The board decided to recess until 9:30 Tuesday morning.
While the room at the state bar is reserved through Wednesday, Cordle said the goal would be to get things taken care of Tuesday.