North Carolina Republican says he hired consultant at heart of fraud probe

(Reuters) – The North Carolina Republican embroiled in a vote fraud controversy said on Friday he hired the political operative at the center of a probe into possible absentee ballot irregularities in a disputed U.S. congressional election.

FILE PHOTO: Mark Harris attends a debate between the four top-polling Republican candidates in North Carolina for the U.S. Senate, at Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina April 22, 2014. REUTERS/Davis Turner/File Photo

North Carolina’s board of election has refused to certify Republican candidate Mark Harris as the winner of the Nov. 6 vote for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as it investigates possible fraud involving absentee ballots linked to Leslie McCrae Dowless, the consultant.

Harris edged out Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in the Nov. 6 vote, but the validity of hundreds of mail-in absentee ballots from the rural county where Dowless worked have been called into question.

In an interview with local TV channel WBTV, Harris said he hired Dowless with the hope he could get an edge in the election by having the consultant run an operation to encourage voters to request absentee ballots and help them mail the ballots in.

WSOC local television also interviewed two women who said they were paid by Dowless to collect absentee ballots and take them to him.

In North Carolina, it is illegal for a third party to turn in absentee ballots.

Asked if he suspected Dowless of doing something illegal, Harris said: “No, absolutely not.”

“We look forward to a transparent, complete and fair investigation.” Harris added.

Dowless did not respond to requests for comment.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have said they may not seat Harris in the next Congress if there is “a very substantial question on the integrity of the election.”

If North Carolina authorities find sufficient evidence of fraud to cast doubt on the result, they could order a new election.

The state’s board of elections on Friday pushed back a hearing on the ballot controversy to Jan. 11 from Dec. 21.

The move, which postpones the hearing until after the new U.S. Congress convenes, frustrated the head of the North Carolina Republican Party, who said voters deserved better.

Asked if he felt his own party was turning on him, Harris told WBTV that Republicans were certainly not “circling the wagons” around him, as Democrats were with McCready.

Reporting by Andrew Hay in Cañon, New Mexico; editing by xxx

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