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How The 9th District's 'Greek Tragedy' Unfolded

Courtesy The News & Observer
John Harris, left, and Mark Harris

During the North Carolina Board of Elections investigation into fraud in the 9th Congressional District race, Executive Director Kim Strach and lead investigator Joan Fleming interviewed John Harris, one of Mark Harris’ three children.

The interview was not expected to be significant, and Joshua Lawson, the elections board attorney, said he did not attend.

But John Harris – an assistant U.S. attorney in Raleigh – came to the meeting with copies of email messages he had exchanged with his father, from the summer of 2016 to the spring 2017.

In those email messages, John Harris told his father that he believed Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless was illegally harvesting absentee mail ballots. He also warned his father not to hire Dowless if Mark Harris ran for Congress in 2018.

“He already thought we had the emails,” Lawson said in an interview after the hearing ended Thursday.

But Lawson said attorneys for Mark Harris’ campaign had not turned over the damaging email and didn’t do so until the hearing had already begun.

As the hearing drew closer, David Freedman, one of Harris’ attorneys, complained that the state had not released its list of witnesses. That list would have included John Harris.

[Related Content: Harris' Retreat Marks A Stunning Reversal]

Lawson said the state did not release the list, in part, because it was worried about witness tampering.

“Bladen County is a small place,” he said.

And he noted that witness tampering did occur, or at least it was attempted. During the first day of testimony, former Dowless employee Lisa Britt testified that Dowless reached out to her days before the hearing began.

She said he sent her a letter urging her to invoke the Fifth Amendment and not answer questions. She testified that Dowless told her to say that she and Dowless did nothing wrong.

Once the hearing started, the elections board took measures to keep John Harris’ possible testimony a secret.

Most witnesses waited in a large conference room on the second floor of the North Carolina State Bar headquarters, a short walk from the main room where the hearing took place. John Harris waited in a different room, on the first floor.

Lawson said that John Harris was not under any sort of gag order and could have discussed his testimony with his parents. John Harris had said during testimony that he had not spoken with his father about the case since December, so as not to jeopardize the investigation.

Mark Harris said he learned that John Harris might testify on Tuesday night, when he spoke to his younger son, Matthew. Mark Harris said he had seen John Harris, who works in Raleigh, on the sidewalk outside the state bar headquarters during the hearing and had been confused.

John Harris was first mentioned in the hearing as Andy Yates, of the political consulting firm Red Dome Group, was being questioned. Yates worked for Harris and paid Dowless.

Yates had been asked repeatedly if there had been any “red flags” about Dowless. He said there hadn’t been.

He was then asked about a conversation with John Harris and whether that raised any red flags. Yates said no.

Lawson said he remembers Harris’ attorneys looking concerned after John Harris was mentioned.

Soon after, Lawson said Harris’ personal attorney gave the elections board copies of the damaging email messages that John Harris had already turned over.

“None of [the documents] were produced by the committee at all,” Lawson told the board during the hearing on Thursday morning.  “But 15 minutes prior to [John Harris’] testimony, personal attorneys for Dr. Harris attempted to hand them to us, waiving any privilege.”

Lawson added: “This was after, we believe, they had indications John Harris was going to take the stand.”

The elections board called John Harris on Wednesday afternoon, and he gave devastating testimony about how he repeatedly told his father that he believed Dowless was breaking the law and that he should not hire him.

On Thursday, during Mark Harris’ testimony, Lawson asked him several times if he had recently spoken with anyone about whether Harris thought the email between him and John Harris would not be a part of the hearing.

Harris said he didn’t remember.

Freedman, Harris’ attorney, then asked to pause the hearing and to address the board in closed session.

When Harris returned, he apologized for not remembering the recent conversation with Matthew Harris.

"It's been brought to my attention that I talked to my son, my younger son Matthew, that I referenced earlier,  two nights ago about the fact that I did not think John's emails would be part of this hearing. Obviously, I was incorrect in my recollection and I wholeheartedly apologize to this board,"  Harris said.

Harris then said he was recently hospitalized and had two strokes. He said he didn’t know anything about anything illegal in the race.

He concluded his remarks by saying "I believe a new election should be called. It’s become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the 9th District seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted."

Lawson said in an interview with WFAE that he hopes the hearing will bring election reform to Bladen County.

“Because long after we care about the Greek tragedy or the lawyer issues on [producing documents], this was something bigger," he said.

This was originally published in Steve Harrison's newsletter Inside Politics. If you'd like to get political reporting delivered to your inbox each Friday afternoon sign up here.

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.