BLADEN COUNTY, NC (WECT) - In a small office space located just a few blocks off US Highway 701, two women held down operations as the phones rang nearly non-stop for a week.
The calls to the Bladen County Board of Elections came from as far away as Los Angeles, and they all had to do with one thing: absentee ballots.
Bladen County, and its population of roughly 33,400 people, sits sandwiched between Fayetteville and Wilmington, yet shares a congressional seat with parts of Charlotte.
It’s that congressional seat that flung the rural community into the national spotlight.
On Nov. 30, the North Carolina State Board of Elections voted 7 to 2 to refuse to certify the race between Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready for the 9th district of the US House of Representatives, where Harris unofficially leads his challenger by 905 votes.
The reason — claims of irregularities with absentee by mail ballots in Bladen and nearby Robeson County, as well as allegations of “concerted fraudulent activity” in the district.
The resulting investigation set the crosshairs on the efforts of longtime Bladen County resident McCrae Dowless and his associates, as well as political consulting firm Red Dome Group.
While the investigation began because of a national seat, the following weeks brought to the surface a decade-long trail of campaign finance questions, local political dealings and bad blood.
Leslie McCrae Dowless registered to vote in Bladen County in 2002, and while anecdotally he was active in the area before, his political activity can be traced back to at least April of 2008.
In the primary of that year, Dowless worked for the campaign of Wilbur Smith, a Democrat running for the 2nd district of the Bladen County Board of Education.
Smith, who could not be reached for comment, paid Dowless $800 for campaign services on April 17, 2008.
It was the next election, however, where Dowless appears to have intensified his efforts.
In the 2010 midterm cycle, he not only worked for three local races — Butch Pope for district attorney, Eric Bryan for Bladen County sheriff and Niki Dennis for Superior Court clerk, all of whom were Democrats — but for Republican Wesley Meredith who successfully won a seat in the state Senate.
All of those candidates listed “Get Out the Vote” (GOTV) as one of the official purposes for the payments to Dowless.
Pope, who won the primary but ultimately lost to current District Attorney Jon David, said Dowless was recommended by people in the community as someone who could help a political newcomer. Pope said Dowless seemed to know the ins-and-outs of the political landscape.
“It seemed to me like he really enjoyed the process,” Pope said.
Dowless could recount political trivia as if it were sports, Pope said, and knew details about every precinct in the county.
Pope added that in their early conversations, Dowless mentioned he didn’t think candidates were paying enough attention to absentee and early voting, but that he didn’t recall any conversations about collecting absentee ballots or anything untoward.
At the time, officials were more concerned.
There are GOTV efforts that are entirely legal. The most common are handing out pamphlets or talking to voters at the polls, or driving voters to their precinct on Election Day.
It’s also legal to turn in an absentee ballot request form for another voter.
What is illegal, and a Class I Felony, would be what Dowless and his associates are accused of now — tampering with, destroying or turning in ballots for other voters.
North Carolina law dictates that no one other than the voter or a direct family member can return an absentee ballot, and there are limits as to who can assist a voter with marking his or her ballot.
After the 2010 election, questions were raised about Dowless’ activities as well as those of the Bladen Improvement Association.
While concerns were raised to the state board of elections, no investigation materialized at the time.
Two years later in the 2012 general election, Dowless again worked for two state-level candidates: Ken Waddell and Al Leonard, who were running for the state House. Both candidates paid Dowless for GOTV.
Documents show that in addition to GOTV efforts, Dowless also served as Waddell’s campaign manager.
Leonard lost in the primary, and Waddell ultimately lost in the general election.
While the 2012 election was a losing year for Dowless' candidates, it was also the last time, on record at least, that Dowless worked for a Democrat.
In 2014, Dowless isn’t listed by name on any campaign finance reports — but he is tied to several candidates.
Dowless was the co-founder to two political organizations that formed in 2014: Patriots for Progress and Politico Management Company.
Patriots for Progress, which Dowless created with fellow Bladen County residents Jeff Smith and Sheila Kinlaw, was initially formed as a response to the Bladen Improvement Association.
In addition to the founders, listed in finance reports is Lisa Kitchens, otherwise known as Lisa Britt, who has said she worked for Dowless, and who voters have identified as one of the people who collected signed, unsealed ballots.
Smith, who served as treasurer for the organization, said Dowless wanted to get more organized in his political involvement, and capitalized on the business community’s desire to get involved with the beer and wine referendum that year.
“[Dowless] wanted to create an organization that people could basically get involved in a similar fashion that the people that were involved in the Bladen Improvement Association were,” Smith said.
Bladen Improvement Association would later figure in a similar absentee ballot tampering complaint to what is currently under investigation.
In that case it was Dowless who filed a complaint, saying the Bladen Improvement Association had done the same kind of activities he and his associates are accused of now on behalf of Democrats — namely Governor Roy Cooper.
Cooper’s campaign finance documents show no payments to the group.
Smith said the organization took contributions and campaigned on behalf of the referendum, and he resigned after the effort failed.
Patriots for Progress, however, continued being active through at least 2016, receiving payments from Ashley Trivette’s campaign for Bladen County Commission.
Dowless also received payment directly from Trivette’s team, as well as from commissioner Ray Britt.
Those payments led to a separate complaint in 2016 from Kenneth Register, who was defeated by Trivette. The complaint alleged that an "undetermined amounts of absentee ballots were forged and submitted by certain individuals and others from the same or similar organizations" to benefit Trivette’s campaign.
Trivette said she did pay Dowless and his associates, but was focused on the campaign at the time and has no knowledge of any illegal activity.
In addition to Patriots for Progress, Dowless co-founded Politico Management Solutions in 2014.
That organization, which was co-founded by former Bladen County Board of Elections member Jens Lutz, was more of a consulting firm than a political action committee.
In 2014, Republican Bill Rabon — arguably the most powerful current member of the General Assembly — paid Politico $6,500 for campaign services. Rabon has since refused to speak to WECT about the investigation.
Ken Waddell also paid the firm $400 during the 2014 cycle.
Lutz has gone on record as saying he helped start the LLC in order to better understand how Dowless ran his GOTV efforts, because he was suspicious of his practices.
“No one person, from any political party, should be able to swing an election,” Lutz said. “The LLC was set up to figure out how he was operating.”
Documents show the firm was dissolved after that year.
In 2014, incumbent Bladen County Sheriff Prentis Benston was defeated by James Atlas McVicker by just 349 votes.
That year, McCrae Dowless does not appear by name on McVicker’s campaign finance reports — but his associates do, and others allege he was paid indirectly.
The McVicker campaign paid Sheila Kinlaw, who was part of the original Patriots for Progress team, $12,520 for GOTV.
However, to understand just how much Dowless was involved in the 2014 McVicker campaign, you need to look at a seemingly unrelated federal lawsuit filed in 2016.
After he was elected, McVicker and his deputies raided Aladdin, Inc, a group of video gaming businesses in Dublin owned by Jeff Smith.
The raid and subsequent arrest came as a shock to Smith, he said, because it was his understanding the sheriff had no problem with his business and would have told him if he did.
Smith said he had that belief due to an exchange during the campaign — an exchange that ties Dowless to the McVicker team.
After the raid, Smith filed a lawsuit about damages to a property he said was unrelated to the search warrant McVicker and DA Jon David had.
In that filing, two documents point to an interaction between Smith and McVicker’s campaign manager, Landon Bordeaux — who was also paid by Patriots for Progress for an unidentified purpose.
According to the documents, during a conversation between Smith and Bordeaux, the campaign manager mentioned that the current sheriff, Prentis Benston, was planning to raid Aladdin. Bordeaux then insinuated, Smith said, that McVicker would be more focused on other issues in the county.
In nearly the same breath, Smith said, Bordeaux asked for a campaign contribution.
However, when Smith went to make a $4,000 contribution, he was asked to pay McCrae Dowless directly, so the contribution didn’t show up on McVicker’s campaign finance reports.
Later in the campaign, Smith says in the documents he was asked for an additional $1,800, again with the insinuation that McVicker would go easier on him.
Another document filed during the lawsuit is a declaration from Dowless himself, where he confirmed he received the payments on behalf of the McVicker campaign, and worked on GOTV and absentee ballot efforts.
For his part, McVicker said during a recorded deposition that he doesn’t remember saying that he would ignore Smith’s business.
“I’m not sure I made that statement, but I do remember making this statement: Mr. Smith was very negative towards sheriff Prentis Benston, and he made it a big deal that Prentis Benston would not sit down and talk to him about his operations, would not return his calls. He tried to explain to him it was legal, and he wouldn’t listen to him. And I told Jefferey Smith that if I won the election I would look into it. If it was legal I would not bother him; if it was illegal I would shut him down.”
When asked about Bordeaux asking Smith to make a payment directly to Dowless so it wouldn’t show up on his reports, or about the insinuation Smith should contribute to avoid a raid, McVicker said he had no knowledge of the events.
Smith said he doesn’t know how that could be the case.
“Unless he didn’t trust his campaign manager, he knew what they were trying to do,” Smith said “The McVicker campaign extorted money from me to fund McCrae Dowless.”
After the election, McVicker did raid the business, and Smith said he thinks he knows why.
Once he was elected, Smith said the Bladen County sheriff visited with several pastors in the county who were averse to the type of experience Aladdin sold. By shutting down a video gaming business, Smith thinks McVicker gained favor with the pastors, and thereby the ability to host campaign events at the churches with Mark Harris during his 2018 campaign.
Dowless acted surprised when the raid happened, Smith said, saying he couldn’t understand why the new sheriff would change his mind.
That’s why Dowless’ involvement in McVicker’s 2018 campaign came as a shock.
According to campaign finance documents, the McVicker campaign paid Dowless $8,800 directly, and also paid Red Dome Group another $8,000.
Red Dome attorneys confirmed Red Dome began using Dowless as a contractor in the summer of 2017.
Smith said he found out Dowless was considering helping the McVicker campaign from Dowless himself a few weeks before the election qualifying deadline.
Dowless needed money to cover rent on a commercial property and was considering working for the McVicker campaign in order to make the payment, but wanted to run it by Smith first given the raid and the subsequent bad blood with the sheriff.
Smith, having loaned money to Dowless in the past, said he offered to loan him the money, and Dowless said he would pay him back with the money he earned from the Harris campaign.
“He’s a very likeable person,” Smith said about the loan.
On the first day of early voting for the May 2018 primary, Smith says he was approached by a McVicker poll worker who said she felt compelled to tell Smith that Dowless had double-crossed him.
He had done so, she said, through his absentee by mail program. His employees — which in 2014 Dowless said in court documents he paid $50 a day — would encourage voters to vote for McVicker rather than primary challenger Billy Ward, or eliminate ballots that did vote for Ward.
However, Smith said Dowless was careful not to make the absentee ballot margin significant, because Smith, being familiar with Dowless’ techniques, would know what was going on.
“He wanted it to be close,” Smith said.
And close it was — McVicker won the primary by a landslide, but only got 44 more absentee by mail votes than Ward.
The absentee vote during the primary election has already come into question after someone said in a sworn affidavit that they spoke with Dowless about an absentee ballot program during early voting in May.
Harris narrowly defeated incumbent Congressman Robert Pittenger in the May primary by 828 votes to secure the Republican nomination in November’s general election for the 9th District. Harris won Bladen County by 900 votes.
Once he found out about Dowless’ work for McVicker’s 2018 campaign, Smith said he “blew a gasket” and went to talk to him, but Dowless wouldn’t meet in person.
The one-time friends haven’t spoken since.
“I was conned by McCrae Dowless into thinking I was his friend,” Smith said.
Since the allegations of election fraud have surfaced, claims that Smith also engaged in absentee ballot harvesting have been thrown around.
Commissioner Ray Britt, who used Dowless in 2016, told a WBTV reporter that a handwritten note that appears to detail a similar ballot-harvesting scheme was left behind by Smith.
Smith denied the allegations.
From 2008 to 2016, McCrae Dowless never ventured into a race larger than seats in the General Assembly.
Then, in June of 2017, he became a contractor for Red Dome Group, a political consulting firm with offices in both Charlotte and Raleigh.
Including Harris, Red Dome worked for nine Republican candidates and a political organization in the WECT viewing area from 2014 to 2016, spread across Bladen, Columbus, Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties.
Campaign finance reports list a variety of reasons for the payments totaling more than half a million dollars, including digital advertising, political mailers, postage, and consulting costs. A few included GOTV activities as well.
McCrae Dowless is not employed by Red Dome, but rather is a contractor brought to the firm by candidates — including Mark Harris.
Harris told WBTV’s Nick Oschner that he sought out Dowless, but said he didn’t know his operation was acting illegally.
Newly-elected sheriff Jody Greene was the only Columbus County candidate for a county-level race who used Red Dome. While Greene he says he doesn’t know McCrae Dowless, a Columbus County election official said Dowless was either at the office or called requesting the absentee ballot log nearly every day.
Greene won the seat over incumbent Lewis Hatcher by only 37 votes, and out of the 557 absentee ballots requested, 181 were not returned. That 32 percent unreturned rate is higher than that of Bladen County, which set off alarm bells at just 24 percent. On average, the rate is 15 to 20 percent statewide.
Greene joined Bladen County Sheriff James McVicker, who paid Red Dome $8,000 on top of the $8,800 he paid Dowless.
It was the final count in the congressional contest between Harris and McCready, however, that brought attention to the political activities going on in Bladen County that a local sheriff or county commission race never could — and launched a formal investigation where complaints in 2010 and 2016 never gained steam, at least publicly.
During the Nov. 30 meeting, the state board of elections went into a nearly three-hour closed session to discuss “possible criminal activity.” On the other side, the body — which itself is in turmoil thanks to political action over the last few years — decided it needed to take a closer look.
The board refused to certify the winner of the “NC9” as well as the District 3 seat on the Bladen County Commission and the county’s Soil and Water Conservation supervisor.
With the dramatic shift in political power in the U.S. House of Representatives in November, all eyes turned on the small, rural community, and its election headquarters in Elizabethtown.
Dowless could not be reached by media for days, and once he did answer the door and phone, said he had no comment. After nearly three weeks he released a statement through his attorney, denying any wrongdoing.
Jeff Smith took calls from reporters and spoke on record over the phone, but declined to do an on-camera interview for fear of “interfering” with the investigation.
Sheriff McVicker curtly responded to requests from WECT reporters, saying he had nothing to do with any absentee ballot irregularities.
Jens Lutz, a Democrat, resigned from his position on the Bladen County Board of Elections after feeling pressure from the media and his own party, citing in his resignation that “things have gotten out of hand” and he didn’t want to put his family through any more stress.
At the elections office in Elizabethtown, the national spotlight has meant nearly nonstop phone calls, records requests and visits from media and concerned voters.
Elections staff say they are unable to get the work done they would normally be doing at this point after an election, such as auditing final campaign finance reports or closing-out committee files. They also say they feel unsafe, because the security features on the building haven’t been updated in years.
On top of the spotlight from the media, the office has also had to comply with the state board’s requests for documents — and are having to do so without an executive director.
Cynthia Shaw, who had held the position for years, took a month of leave ahead of her retirement scheduled for after the first of the year, though Bladen County Board of Elections members said it was unrelated to the controversy.
When the state board of elections first announced it was launching an investigation into the absentee by mail ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties, the goal was to hold a hearing before Dec. 21.
Citing delays in obtaining documents after Red Dome, Harris and McVicker were issued subpoenas for their campaign information, the state board of elections pushed back its evidentiary hearing to Jan. 11, 2019.
Republican party leaders have said the process was “tainted” by partisan politics, and called for the immediate certification of Harris as the NC9 winner unless the board can provide public evidence of fraud.
At the hearing, attorneys, witnesses, signers of affidavits and a whole host of other parties will give testimony on the case, and the board will vote to decide whether to certify the winners or call for a new election.
But even if the state board determines no new election is needed, Democratic leader and incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has already said federal leaders may take matters into their own hands and launch an independent investigation.
Either way, come Jan. 3, when the 116th United States Congress is sworn in, more than 788,000 people will be without a voting representative in the country’s legislative body.
[Ann McAdams, Chelsea Donovan, Kailey Tracey and Clint Bullock contributed to this report.]