ELIZABETHTOWN, NC (WBTV) – The chairman of the Bladen County Republican Party issued a press release Thursday afternoon saying he would not have hired McCrae Dowless to coordinate poll workers for the 2018 election had he known of allegations detailed in a new set of released by the North Carolina State Board of Elections on Wednesday.
Dowless is a Bladen County political operative who was hired by Republican Mark Harris’ campaign for Congress to run a coordinated absentee ballot and get out the vote operation in the 2018 election.
In his release Thursday, Bladen GOP Chairman Walter McDuffie said he also hired Dowless to use his network to staff polls around the county on election day for Republican candidates.
McDuffie said he would not have hired Dowless had he known staff at the state board of elections had concluded he violated election laws in the 2016 election by paying people to collect absentee ballots and, later, attempted to obstruct the NCSBE investigation.
"I authorized a $1300 check to McCrae on election day for him to provide a significant number of poll workers, which he did,” McDuffie said. “This had nothing to do with absentee ballot GOTV and was a perfectly legal, proper transaction that has already been disclosed to the NCSBE prior to the required reporting date.”
"However, I never would have done this had I known what the State Board of Elections already knew,” McDuffie’s statement continued.
In an interview with WBTV on Thursday afternoon, after his statement was released, McDuffie said he hadn’t read all of the nearly 300 pages in the case file released by the NCSBE on Wednesday but said he wished the board had released the information sooner.
“I was very surprised at that and I’ve been surprised at not being able to hear anything,” McDuffie said of the conclusions reached by investigators in the documents released Wednesday. “Really, since the 2016 election there have been questions that we’ve wanted the state board to answer that we can’t get anything out of.”
The documents released by the NCSBE on Wednesday detailed the finding of the boards investigation into reported voting irregularities in Bladen County in 2016.
NCSBE staff are currently investigating reports of similar irregularities in Bladen and Robeson Counties in the 2018 election.
The election was prompted by the board’s vote to not certify the results of the 2018 race between Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready, in which Harris beat McCready by less than 1,000 votes.
Much of the public scrutiny around the current investigation has centered on a man named McCrae Dowless, who worked for the Harris campaign in 2018.
In an exclusive interview with WBTV last week, Harris said he personally made the decision to hire Dowless at the recommendation of a number of local Republican officials.
“He was being vouched for by a number of other leaders down there,” Harris said. “When I was introduced to him in the initial meeting, the first time I’d met him in a meeting that Judge Warren was able to set up for us, there was a county commissioner there by the name of Ray Britt; there was a businessman there by the name of Pat Melvin; there was a GOP chair there by the name of Walter McDuffie; and there was McCrae Dowless and others.”
Harris’ explanation that a group of local officials including McDuffie helped introduce him to Dowless is at odds with a report from the Washington Post that says McDuffie warned the campaign about a prior felony conviction for insurance fraud Dowless faced in the 1990s.
But, in his interview with WBTV on Thursday, McDuffie said the way in which the Washington Post portrayed his comments regarding Dowless to the Harris campaign was inaccurate.
“Mark Harris says that you were among a group of people that met with him and recommended he hire McCrae Dowless,” a reporter asked.
“That’s correct,” McDuffie responded.
“The Washing post has reported that you warned Mark Harris about hiring McCrae Dowless. Is that accurate?” the reporter asked.
“I read that and that’s not accurate that I warned Mark or his campaign,” McDuffie responded.
Here is how McDuffie described the communication he had with the Harris campaign regarding Dowless’ criminal record:
“I only said I talked, in fact, once of the people that was at the meeting the day that Mark came in. When I heard—and I would think it was sometime just a week or two before Christmas of last year, I overheard or, in fact, it was two of us discussion when it was told so me so I wouldn’t say I overheard it, I heard it directly, they told me that McCrae had been involved in some sort of insurance scam or some illegal policy thing and she—the best I remember, this lady that told me this—told me it was something to do with insurance on a truck or something, that maybe a truck burned or something of that sort. It happened a long time ago, I didn’t know any details, that was all I did—didn’t know where to find out anything. But I did go to one of the people that was there when, uh, we met with Mark and I told them that I had heard that and they said that they were sure that before Mark hired him that everything was probably checked out and there was probably not anything to it. And if there was, it was a long time ago and he’d probably paid his price and he’d been straight and honest since then.”
McDuffie said he had no other concerns following that conversation because he never heard anything else about Dowless after that.
“I knew nothing else of McCrae after that. No one came to me after that, nobody came to me with any wrongdoing,” McDuffie said.