By Grant Smith
(Reuters) – The Republican candidate in a disputed North Carolina congressional election paid more than $525,000 to a political consulting firm at the center of a probe of possible absentee ballot fraud in the race, federal finance reports show.
A finance report filed with the Federal Election Commission on Thursday showed Republican Mark Harris’ campaign also owed the Red Dome Group a total of $53,442 for work performed between mid-October and late November, including $34,310 for reimbursements for “Bladen absentee” and “door to door” efforts.
The state’s board of elections has refused to certify Harris as the winner of the Nov. 6 election for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as it investigates possible fraud involving absentee ballots from two rural counties.
Residents in rural Bladen County have provided sworn affidavits that people came to their homes to collect absentee ballots they had not filled in. In North Carolina, it is illegal for a third party to turn in absentee ballots.
Two women have told WSOC-TV in North Carolina that elections consultant Leslie McCrae Dowless paid them to collect absentee ballots and deliver them to him. Dowless worked for Red Dome, the station reported. Neither Dowless nor Red Dome has responded to requests for comment.
Bladen and another rural community under review, Robeson County, saw high interest in absentee ballots this year with abnormally large numbers of ballots unreturned, according to an analysis by Michael Bitzer, a politics and history professor at Catawba College in North Carolina.
If fraud is uncovered, the board could order a new election. Harris edged out Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes last month, but McCready on Thursday withdrew his concession.
“Over the last week we have seen the criminal activity come to light, and we have seen that my opponent Mark Harris has bankrolled this criminal activity,” McCready said in an interview with WSOC. “I call on Mark Harris to tell the American people exactly what he knew and when he knew it.”
Harris, in a video posted on Twitter on Friday, said: “I was absolutely unaware of any wrongdoing.”
The Republican said his campaign was cooperating with the state investigation and he would support a new election if the probe finds proof of illegal activity that could have changed the outcome of the vote.
North Carolina Republican Party leaders also have said they would support a public hearing and possibly a new election. Democrats in the U.S. House are calling for an investigation and could rule on the contest when they take control of the chamber next year.
Republican state lawmakers on Thursday said questions have been raised for years about mail-in ballots in Bladen County.
The Harris campaign financial statement filed on Thursday showed it also owed Red Dome $11,250 for digital advertising and $7,882 for robocalls and a Robeson mailer during the mid-October to late November period.
The more than $525,000 the campaign paid to Red Dome during the 2017-18 election cycle does not include the listed debt.
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