Investigators suspect Republican group called N.C. voters spreading misinformation

Updated: Oct. 28, 2020 at 5:39 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Republican operatives called voters with incorrect information about their voter registration, investigators with the N.C. State Board of Elections believe, using a dark money group formed in Texas. Records show the Republican group used the same name as a long-established group registered in North Carolina by Democrats.

But records show NCSBE, the North Carolina Attorney General and other state regulators have made minimal effort to stop the group from continuing its activity.

A certificate of formation from the Secretary of State of Texas show North Carolina First was incorporated as a 501(c)(4)—also known as a dark money group—in September 2019.

The purpose of the organization, the paperwork said, was to “invest in the activation, long-term engagement, and mobilization of North Carolinians to advance policies and referenda that will create jobs, preserve freedom, and enhance security to protect the (sic) North Carolina.”

Three Republican operatives, with ties to the Republican National Committee and other national Republican groups, are listed as the board of directors.

The group put up a sleek website that claimed its mission was to “engage voting age North Carolinians, especially those currently unrepresented, by educating them as to their civic opportunities and how those opportunities affect their future.”

But documents obtained by WBTV from the North Carolina State Board of Elections in response to a request for records related into NC First suggests the group may have been doing the opposite.

DOCUMENT: Read the complaint against NC First

Two voters called elections officials in March to complain about strange phone calls they received about their voter registration.

Charles Johnson, Jr. called the NCSBE in late March to report a call he’d gotten from a man he didn’t know calling, he said, on behalf of a voter group he didn’t know.

Johnson, a Black man, is a registered Democrat with an active voting history, first in Nash County and, more recently, in Wake County.

“As soon as I got the phone call, my ‘spidey senses’ went off and said, you know what, something’s not right about this guy,” Johnson told WBTV of the call.

Voter registration records show Johnson has been registered to vote in Wake County since 2014.

So, he was surprised to get a call from someone in March claiming there were problems with his voter registration.

“I knew there was no problem with my voter registration,” Johnson said. “I had my voter card downstairs nice and snug.”

According to an NCSBE form documenting Johnson’s complaint, the caller said Johnson was registered to vote at an address in Rocky Mount – in Nash County – where he had not lived for two years.

The report said that when Johnson told the caller he’d contact the board of elections to verify his voter registration, the caller said he could take care of the situation on the telephone because he had the state’s website pulled up.

“At that point, I tell him ‘no, no, no, no, no, no, don’t you change a think on my voter registration,’” Johnson recalled.

He said he started getting angry at the caller, who then hung up the phone.

“I wasn’t confused,” Johnson said. “Being a Black man in America, what we know is that voter suppression is real. You know, it’s no joke.”

Around the same time, Thomas Joseph Stich, Sr. got a call from the same number.

Stich, a white man in his early 70′s, lives in New Hanover County. He has been registered as a Democrat and voted regularly since 1982, records show.

According to the NCSBE incident report, the caller told him he was on a list of unregistered voters and wanted to mail him a registration form.

Neither man had a name of the person who called them or remembered the name of the group the caller said they were with. But they both had the same Google Voice phone number.

Investigators determined the number was registered to Google Account NCFIRST0120135. But repeated calls to that number by NCSBE investigators went unanswered and nobody returned voicemail messages. A call from WBTV to the number also went unanswered.

That’s what prompted a NCSBE investigator to email an attorney for the North Carolina-based NC First in mid-August.

An email from the investigator to the NC group’s lawyer, Michael Weisel—a well-known Raleigh lawyer whose work primarily involves creating and running Democrat-affiliated political organizations, including dark money groups—said the board was trying to talk with someone from NC First.

“Would you have a contact person and telephone number for the organization as we would like to discuss several complaints from voters we received and provide the organization with best practices material for conducting voter drives in NC,” the investigator wrote.

Weisel responded the next day on behalf of his group, the North Carolina-based NC First. In his email, he said his group had also recently received complaints about a group claiming to be NC First contacting voters but that it wasn’t his organization because his group did not conduct voter registration activities.

“Nonetheless, there is clearly an entity engaging in voter registration activities (doing business) in North Carolina, utilizing the name of North Carolina First and NC First (or N.C. First), making telephone calls, hosting a website, and possibly disseminating erroneous information about North Carolinian’s voter registration status,” Weisel’s email said.

Weisel sent a complaint on behalf of his group to the NCSBE. And, separately, filed a complaint with the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office for an infringement on his group’s registered name.

Documents provided by the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office show they sent a set of interrogatories to the Texas-based, Republican-led group as part of an investigation into the North Carolina group’s complaint.

By law, the interrogatories are secret. A spokesman for the N.C. Secretary of State’s Office said the office received a response from the Texas group and those responses were forwarded to the N.C. Attorney General.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Josh Stein said her office did not have an active investigation into the Texas group.

The investigation by the elections board seems to have fizzled out without any contact with the operatives behind the Republican group.

“Case review for tomorrow. There is not much to go over. If you need to cancel for other commitments, let me know,” the NCSBE’s senior lead investigator wrote the agency’s general counsel in late August.

Another email shows this case was set for a second review in early September but other information included in that email was redacted.

NCSBE spokesman Pat Gannon said board investigators were also unable to reach anyone with the group registered in Texas.

Gannon said investigators issued a subpoena and made multiple calls to uncover the identity of the callers but the efforts were unsuccessful.

He said the board did not receive any other complaints about NC First outside of the three provided to WBTV.

“Several organizations aggressively call, text and otherwise reach out to voters, and these groups have been very active this year, eliciting many complaints from voters,” Gannon said. “Some of them may pull data from outdated sources, which is not illegal, but understandably confusing to voters.”

Gannon said the NCSBE would reopen its investigation if it received more complaints.

WBTV made repeated attempts to contact each of the three board members listed for the Texas-based NC First. None of the messages were returned.

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