Amidst the growing probe into suspected absentee ballot fraud by Republican Mark Harris' campaign in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District race, state GOP leaders have insisted their party has been sounding the alarm about absentee voting irregularities for years, to no avail.

For proof, Republicans point to North Carolina's hard-fought 2016 governor's race. After GOP incumbent Pat McCrory narrowly lost to Democratic challenger Roy Cooper, McCrory's campaign filed a complaint challenging up to 400 absentee ballots in Bladen County, which is at the center of this year's controversy.

Recently, McCrory himself lamented that if his warnings about absentee ballot fraud two years ago had been taken seriously, this year's irregularities — which have the kept the outcome of the 2018 congressional race in limbo and may prompt a new election — could have been avoided. "Our campaign received very similar complaints in Bladen and Robeson counties about inappropriate absentee voting [in 2016]," McCrory said in a radio interview earlier this month. "And we raised this issue with the [N.C. state] election board — and with the media — and it was basically ignored."

"Had there been an investigation done in 2016, maybe this controversy would have not been happening in 2018," McCrory added.

But an explosive internal report prepared earlier this year by N.C. State Board of Elections investigators and made public this week shows that the complaint filed by McCrory and Republican attorneys two years ago targeting absentee ballots in Bladen County was deeply flawed and lacked clear evidence of wrongdoing.

Perhaps most shockingly, the report reveals that after the 2016 elections, McCrory and GOP lawyers attempted to pin blame on an African-American community group for an alleged absentee ballot scheme that in reality was led by Republican operative Leslie McRae Dowless Jr., the same figure at the center of this year's election scandal.

McCrory's anti-fraud crusade

Hours after polls closed in the 2016 elections, it was clear Gov. Pat McCrory had a problem. After enjoying a lead in the vote count for much of the evening on Election Day, an influx of votes from liberal-leaning Durham County put North Carolina's incumbent GOP governor nearly 5,000 votes behind Democrat Roy Cooper.

As documented by Facing South and other media, an army of Republican lawyers whirred into action with an aggressive strategy: accusing hundreds of Democratic voters across North Carolina of fraud in the hopes of disqualifying their votes, and perhaps, critics claimed, sowing enough distrust to trigger a state law that would allow the GOP-controlled legislature to determine the winner.

By the end of November, McCrory and allied lawyers with the N.C. Republican Party and the Virginia-based GOP firm Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky (HVJT) prepared complaints — filed on behalf of local residents often unaware of their contents — in more than half of North Carolina's 100 counties, calling into question some 600 Democratic votes.

Most of the complaints quickly fell apart and were dismissed. As Democracy North Carolina, an election watchdog group, would later document in a report blasting McCrory's challenges, many of the protests "were apparently hurriedly produced and often contained sloppy errors, incorrect references, and false or misleading information." According to the group, lack of success didn't deter McCrory's team:

The crusade did not stop even after McCrory's attorneys were told by some elections officials that their claims were wrong, that they were confusing voters' names with other people, that they were using bad data. Instead of stopping, the attorneys caused more charges to be filed that maligned more innocent voters.

'Hundreds of fraudulent ballots'

Bladen County was the centerpiece of the GOP-McCrory anti-fraud crusade. About 400, or two-thirds, of the 600 votes North Carolina Republicans would contest in 2016 were absentee ballots cast by Democrats in Bladen.

The GOP complaint filed in Bladen County focused on an unusually large number of write-in votes for Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor that appeared on absentee ballots. Local officials alerted the state elections board, noting that the handwriting of the witnesses on the absentee ballots often matched the handwriting on the write-in line on the ballot. If witnesses help a voter fill out their absentee ballot, North Carolina law requires a box be checked on the envelope indicating that assistance was provided; on these ballots, it often wasn't.

Dowless was the winner in the county's Conservation District race. But after hearing about the suspicious absentee votes for his write-in opponent, Dowless talked to Republican attorneys working for Gov. McCrory. On Nov. 15, 2016, Dowless authorized a lawyer from the Virginia-based HVJT firm to sign his name to a protest contesting "literally hundreds of fraudulent ballots" in a "massive scheme to run an absentee ballot mill" in Bladen County.

The complaint singled out one group in particular as being at the center of the plot: the Bladen County Improvement Association (BCIA) PAC, a group formed in 1989 to promote African-American candidates for local office and an active player in local Democratic Party politics. Several of the witnesses who signed absentee ballots with the write-in candidate opposing Dowless were members of — and, according to campaign finance records, paid by — the PAC.

On Dec. 3, 2016, the state elections board held a hearing to consider the GOP's complaint filed by Dowless. Despite being represented by a dream team of  high-powered Republican lawyers including John Branch, Roger Knight and Steve Roberts of HVJT, their case quickly unraveled.

First, it became clear that Dowless had little idea what was in the complaint filed under his name. When board member Joshua Malcolm began asking Dowless about contents of the complaint, it led to this embarrassing exchange:

MALCOLM: Okay, sir. You alleged that there was a scheme that was taking place in Bladen County, correct? That's the words that you used? "Blatant scheme." What did you mean by that?

DOWLESS: A scheme?

MALCOLM: Well, you used the words, "resulting from a …"

DOWLESS: Are you saying I used the words or the attorney that wrote that up used the words?

MALCOLM: Well, it's got your signature at the end of it.

DOWLESS: It's got my signature on it, but as far as writing that up, I didn't do that.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, Dowless and the GOP lawyers were unable to produce the name of any voters who believed their absentee ballot had been wrongfully handled or altered by BCIA members. This, as it turns out, was in line with what state election officials were discovering in their own internal probe. The report made public this week reveals that state investigators had contacted several voters in Bladen County connected to the suspicious absentee ballots, and concluded that "no evidence was found to indicate the voters were coerced or intimidated" with their write-in votes, and none felt their votes had been fraudulently cast.

Ultimately, the state elections board voted 3-2 to dismiss the Dowless/GOP complaint for lack of evidence. Two Democrats as well as Republican board member Judge James Baker voted for dismissal.

'An extremely curious attachment'

There was another reason the case brought by Dowless and the GOP in 2016 was on shaky ground: In the course of the December 2016 board hearing, it became clear Dowless was likely running his own absentee ballot harvesting scheme in Bladen County.

As it turns out, at the very time Dowless was signing his name to the GOP complaint against the BCIA, he was under investigation by the state elections board due to complaints lodged by three Bladen County voters who said they were victims of absentee ballot fraud.

The three voters — Linda Baldwin, Brenda Register, and Heather Register (unrelated to Brenda) — all filed complaints that, after a lengthy investigation, led state officials to conclude that two people, Caitlyn Croom and Matthew Matthis, were being paid by Dowless and his group Patriots for Progress IE PAC to solicit absentee ballot requests and collect absentee ballots.

After initially denying the charges, Croom and Matthis would eventually admit to state investigators that, among other illegal activities, Dowless instructed them to "push" absentee voters to choose Donald Trump, McCrory and other Republican candidates, and that Dowless would pay them for delivering completed absentee ballots, a practice prohibited by North Carolina law except in special cases.

The state board also concluded that Dowless "attempted to obstruct the ensuing ... investigation" by warning his employees Matthis and Croom that election officials would be calling, and "coaching them as to what they should say." Among the damning pieces of evidence were text messages like this one Matthis sent to Dowless on Nov. 18, 2016:

Hey mccrae, that weird number was the investigators. They called me again today. They want to meet with me in the morning, im scared and I don't remember half of what we are supposed to say. I've never been investigated for anything.

To the dismay of the GOP lawyers in the room, board member Joshua Malcolm turned the tables on Dowless at the December 2016 hearing and began quizzing him about his absentee ballot operation in Bladen County, an awkward moment captured by a correspondent for the radio program This American Life.

But if Dowless' willingness to sign a GOP complaint about absentee ballot fraud while under investigation for the practice himself was brazen, what the Republican lawyers included in their complaint did would be viewed by state investigators as outrageous.

As supporting evidence for the 2016 complaint, GOP lawyers added what North Carolina elections investigator Joan Fleming would call in her internal report "an extremely curious attachment": the affidavit of Heather Register, one of the voters allegedly targeted by Dowless' absentee ballot operation. Register and her husband claim that Croom and Matthis requested an absentee ballot on their behalf but it never arrived; when she showed up to vote on Election Day, poll workers said her vote had already been cast, even though Register denies ever voting.

By including Register's affidavit in the GOP complaint, McCrory, the Republican lawyers and Dowless were attempting to blame the BCIA for absentee fraud that, in reality, state officials had concluded was committed by Dowless himself. In the N.C. State Board of Elections report, investigator Fleming minced no words in calling out the GOP's deception:

Since Croom and Matthis clearly worked for Dowless, it made no sense that Dowless would attach the Register complaint to his protest. The effect was that the protest was falsely attributing the circumstances of the Register incident to persons associated with the BCIA.

The GOP's false accusations against the BCIA didn't end there. In his opening argument at the Dec. 3, 2016 election board hearing, the lead Republican attorney, Roger Knight, wrongfully drew a connection between Dowless' likely fraud and the black-led BCIA:

It appears that this organization [the Bladen County Improvement Association] incentivizes obtaining absentee ballots, and to establish that, I call your attention to an affidavit that's part of your record, from a Mrs. Heather Register … The Heather Register affidavit indicates that individuals came to her door, suggested that if she would file a request for an absentee ballot, this individual would be paid.

Knight went on to erroneously suggest that the complaint filed by Ms. Linda Baldwin was also evidence of fraud on the part of the BCIA. As investigator Fleming notes in the election board report publicized this week, Dowless — who was under oath at the December 2016 hearing — neglected to correct any of the fraudulent claims being made by Knight against the BCIA:

Throughout the above statement [by Roger Knight], Dowless was present and could hear the evidence that his attorney was presenting to the State Board on his behalf. Nothing was said to Dowless to his attorneys or the State Board to correct the description that was inaccurately attributing the Baldwin and Register illegal conduct to the BCIA when Dowless knew full well that the Baldwin and Register complaints described actions of Matthis and Croom, persons working for Dowless.

Efforts to contact Roger Knight for this story were not immediately successful.

In the wake of this year's election fraud probe in the 9th Congressional District, a growing list of individuals have come forward with statements implicating Dowless in suspect absentee voter operations over the years, making his 2016 complaint for the GOP — and willingness to blame the BCIA — all the more incredible.

An "incident report" filed with the Bladen County election board about an absentee ballot handled by the BCIA in 2016 recently surfaced, although it's unclear if there was wrongdoing. As for Dowless, he's refused media interviews, although his lawyer released a statement this week stating:

Mr. Dowless is a highly respected member of the community who is routinely sought after for his campaign expertise. He has not violated any State or Federal campaign laws and current ongoing investigations will prove the same. All speculation is premature and wholly unwarranted.

My client and his family respectfully ask for privacy during this holiday season and beyond. Mr. Dowless and I look forward to addressing all questions and concerns in the proper forum.

Dowless will have an opportunity tell his side of the story on Jan. 11, 2019, when the North Carolina elections board will hold a hearing into questions raised about the 9th Congressional District race.