National Republicans Bankrolled Lawyer for GOP Congressional Candidate Accused of Election Fraud

The National Republican Congressional Committee paid the lawyer representing Mark Harris, a North Carolina Republican being investigated for election fraud.

Mark Harris, center, Republican candidate for North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District seat, and his attorney David Freedman, right, leave after speaking with the media outside the state elections board building, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, in Raleigh, N.C. Harris and his lawyers met for about two hours with board investigators examining absentee ballot irregularities in the 9th District. No candidate has been certified the 9th District winner while the investigation continues. (Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer via AP)
Mark Harris, center, Republican candidate for North Carolina’s 9th District seat, and his attorney David Freedman, right, leave after speaking with the media outside the state elections board building on Jan. 3, 2019, in Raleigh, N.C. Photo: Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer via AP

National Republicans picked up the tab for the legal defense of a North Carolina congressional candidate whose campaign illegally solicited and forged absentee ballots in the state’s 9th District, according to disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission. The attorney has been accused by the North Carolina State Board of Elections of improperly withholding documents that would help expose the fraud.

Financing the legal defense implicates national Republicans in the scandal, but it hasn’t stopped them from exploiting it to push new voter suppression laws. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have both spoken out about ballot harvesting in the 9th District, without naming the party as the culprit, using the episode to justify their push for stricter voter ID laws and attempting to curtail early voting.

The National Republican Congressional Committee paid $157,303 to a Raleigh-based law firm representing Mark Harris, whose apparent narrow victory in a November election led to an investigation into election fraud. 

John Branch, a lawyer with Shanahan McDougal Law Group, represented Harris while he testified before the state election board in February about his campaign’s scheme. The NRCC made the payments to Shanahan McDougal over a three-month period starting in December, the federal disclosures show.

Branch’s representation of Harris for potentially breaking the law itself has raised ethical questions. The lawyer withheld documents during the hearing, and the election board chair called his actions “unacceptable.” Branch said he mistakenly thought that he wasn’t required to submit those documents, Politico reported, and he eventually submitted the requested files the night before Harris was set to testify.

Board of Elections officials raised concerns last November after Harris appeared to beat Democrat Dan McCready by a slim 905-vote margin, with a major increase in absentee ballots coming from Bladen County in particular. They refused to certify the results, meaning that the 9th District currently has no representative in Congress. Harris has claimed to have been unknowingly part of the plan that was executed by longtime political strategist Leslie McCrae Dowless, a Bladen County native. Both he and the board called for a new election, which will be held in either September or November. Harris has since said he won’t run again for the seat, citing health concerns.

Ten Republicans are now running in the primary election on May 14, compared to three GOP candidates who ran last year. The winner will face McCready, Green Party candidate Loran Allen Smith, and Libertarian candidate Jeff Scott in the general election.

Following Harris’s February testimony, a federal grand jury issued subpoenas for Harris, Dowless, and the state election board

Congressional Republicans using the scandal to call for a crackdown on voter fraud have yet to acknowledge that their own House campaign arm actually bankrolled the lawyer tasked with defending Harris against accusations of election fraud, let alone that Branch himself tried to keep key documents out of the hearing. It appears that national Republicans may have been aware of potential fraud even before the November election. The campaign for Harris’s Republican primary opponent, former Rep. Rob Pittenger, said it contacted both the NRCC and the state party’s executive director, Dallas Woodhouse, in May to alert them of abnormal absentee ballot activity in Bladen County. Those warnings were largely ignored. The NRCC has denied that Pittenger’s campaign contacted them. The NRCC did not respond to The Intercept’s multiple requests for comment.

The state’s Republican Party, meanwhile, stood behind Harris even as the election board opened an investigation, calling him an “innocent victim.” In an emotional hearing in February, Harris’s own son, John, testified against the candidate. John said he warned Mark Harris ahead of Election Day against working with Dowless. Dowless and four people linked to the plan to forge signatures, fill out incomplete ballots, and pay workers to collect absentee ballots — a violation of the state’s election law — have been arrested.

North Carolina has come under heightened scrutiny for increasingly conservative measures coming out of the Republican-controlled general assembly. The state’s Republican party is also being scrutinized after the indictment of its chair, former Rep. Robin Hayes, a top donor, and two of his associates on bribery charges. The state GOP is also weighing removing Woodhouse for his management of the party in light of recent events.

The race to fill the 9th District seat will be closely watched. Republicans have represented the district since 1963, but McCready appeared to lose to Harris by less than 1 percentage point in November, and the Democrat is hopeful that the GOP’s mess in the first election will propel him to victory. Several national Democrats and 2020 presidential hopefuls, including Rep. Seth Moulton, Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg have reached out to help him.

McCready is a Marine Corps veteran and an alum of consulting firm McKinsey & Company, who co-founded a clean energy investment company that’s built solar farms across the state. McCready is running on a platform to combat voter suppression, preserve Medicare and Social Security, protect access to abortion, and secure equal pay for women.

Harris has endorsed Republican Stony Rushing, a commissioner for Union County and gun range owner running on protecting rights to gun ownership. Rushing is opposed to abortion and fought against efforts to remove Confederate flags from a courthouse in Monroe County after the 2015 massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlotte, South Carolina. Rushing has said Harris was unfairly targeted by the state election board and that there shouldn’t be a new election. In a Facebook post, he called for the FBI to investigate the board.  

Voters will head to the polls on September 10 for either a primary runoff or the general election, depending on the results of the May primary. If candidates end up in a runoff, the general election will be held November 5. Meanwhile, the state is preparing to host the 2020 Republican National Convention in Charlotte, and Republican Sen. Thom Tillis is up for re-election next year.

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