News Brief: New North Carolina Election, Jussie Smollett, Vatican Sex Abuse Summit

Feb 22, 2019
Originally published on February 22, 2019 7:02 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

North Carolina's Board of Elections has heard enough.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah. Days of testimony persuaded the board that a congressional election was tainted. Witnesses described how a political operative mishandled absentee ballots. The operative was working for Republican candidate Mark Harris. Even his own son offered damaging testimony before Harris gave in.

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MILES PARKS, BYLINE: It's become clear to me that the public's confidence in the 9th District seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted.

INSKEEP: NPR's Miles Parks has been covering this story all along. Hey there, Miles.

PARKS: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What made it clear to Mark Harris that his apparent win by 905 votes was just not going to stand?

PARKS: So this really came down to the viability of Mark Harris' version of events. For months since the election, he has said he knew nothing about the absentee ballot scheme that investigators have been laying out, which was performed by a man named McCrae Dowless in the eastern part of the 9th District. Mark Harris said he knew nothing about that and that he was not warned about Dowless' potentially illegal tactics.

But that has been losing steam all week long. We heard testimony on Wednesday, which was really key, from actually Mark Harris' son, John Harris, who's an assistant U.S. attorney in North Carolina. John said he warned his father specifically about Dowless' tactics. Here's a clip.

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JOHN HARRIS: I love my dad, and I love my mom. I think that they made mistakes in this process, and they certainly did things differently than I would have done them.

INSKEEP: And isn't there evidence that he did warn them? There was emailed evidence as well as verbal warnings.

PARKS: There were. Especially - there was one especially damning email in there where he sent an email with the North Carolina statute that laid out how it was illegal to collect ballots, which is what McCrae Dowless is accused of doing.

What Mark Harris says is that he just didn't heed his son's warnings. His son's - was based in D.C. at the time. He had never been to Bladen County. And Mark Harris says he just chalked it up to youth, that he believed McCrae Dowless' denials that he was collecting ballots over his son's warning, which were based on this data analysis that he had been doing on election results from previous elections in Bladen County.

INSKEEP: OK. So we have this finding of bogus activity in the election, a very close election. It will be re-run. Is Mark Harris - the guy whose campaign was guilty of this behavior, is he allowed to run again?

PARKS: He is allowed to run again. The question at this point is whether he will run again. We know that in North Carolina, it's required to not only hold a new general election at this point but also a new primary process. So it's really unclear whether Mark Harris is going to be able to gather that Republican support in the state after he has all of this baggage from this weeklong hearing. Whether he's going to be able to gather support from Republicans and take on Democrat Dan McCready again in the general election is still really unclear. He hasn't even said that he is going to run yet.

INSKEEP: I suppose there's also the question as to whether this will become one more Democratic seat at the end of this 2018 election in which a lot of Democrats won seats in the House of Representatives or whether Republicans would hold it. How Republican had this seat been up to now?

PARKS: It had been very Republican in recent years. But Democrats are definitely excited about the possibility of having another shot at this. Obviously the whole fact that we're here at all is based on the fact that this was a very close election in 2018. And since Dan McCready, the Democrat who was running against Mark Harris - since he rescinded his concession after the - after Election Day, he has raised a lot of money in the weeks and months following that. So Democrats are expecting - they've also made election security a huge campaign point looking ahead to 2020.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah.

PARKS: You connect that with the fact that McCready's been able to fundraise, Democrats are really excited about this possibility.

INSKEEP: Miles, thanks very much.

PARKS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Miles Parks.

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INSKEEP: Police in Chicago have offered some of the evidence that a hate crime was faked.

GREENE: Yeah. We're talking about the alleged attack on Jussie Smollett, an actor in the series "Empire." Police superintendent Eddie Johnson says the attack, the racial slurs, even the rope around Smollett's neck were false.

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EDDIE JOHNSON: This stunt was orchestrated by Smollett because he was dissatisfied with his salary, so he concocted a story about being attacked.

GREENE: Now police and prosecutors say Smollett paid the attackers by check, although the actor is still maintaining his innocence.

INSKEEP: We're joined now by Paris Schutz, a correspondent for "Chicago Tonight" on WTTW, Chicago Public Media. Good morning.

PARIS SCHUTZ, BYLINE: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: What information stood out for you as police and prosecutors laid out their case?

SCHUTZ: Just the specific detail that Cook County prosecutors had on this, all the evidence that they had compiled - text messages, interviews with witnesses. And they outlined their case yesterday in court, where Smollett allegedly sent a text message to his friend, Abel Osundairo, who was an extra on "Empire." The text reads, quote, "might need your help on the low. You around to meet up and talk face to face?"

At this point, Smollett, as Johnson mentions there at the open, is upset that a threatening letter that police say he sent himself, although that hasn't been proven yet, was not getting the attention he wanted to receive. So he talks to Abel. Abel introduces him to his brother, Ola. Smollett asks Ola if he can trust him, and then he hatches this alleged fake plan with him.

INSKEEP: And then, of course, we have the check as well at the end of that. I want to play police superintendent Eddie Johnson again. Let's listen.

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JOHNSON: To put the national spotlight on Chicago for something that is both egregious and untrue is simply shameful.

INSKEEP: People in Chicago do not seem happy to be associated with this.

SCHUTZ: Oh, including the police superintendent, as you can hear in his voice there. The mayor of Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, issued a long statement condemning what happened and making sure that everybody knows Chicago is a place of tolerance. There are a lot of people that have signs in their homes that say, hate has no home here. And Emanuel wanted to drive home the fact that people here really mean that.

And Eddie Johnson reserves that kind of emotion for particularly heinous crimes that he - that happen that he comes and talks about - says you have to wonder what's going through this man's mind. And in Chicago, as people around the nation know, the homicide rate is really high. And more than 80 percent of those murders go unsolved.

Juxtapose that with this case, where 24 detectives were working on it from the beginning. It was a so-called heater case, so much media attention on it. And it - charges were brought relatively quickly in this. So there's frustration that crimes like - there was the murder of a 1-year-old recently, and they have no leads on that. But this one got solved right away.

INSKEEP: A heater case, meaning one that got the publicity and therefore got the resources.

SCHUTZ: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Paris Schutz, thanks very much.

SCHUTZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He is with "Chicago Tonight" on WTTW, Chicago Public Media, and joined us via Skype.

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INSKEEP: At the request of Pope Francis, Bishops gathered in Rome to address sex abuse in the Catholic Church.

GREENE: This four-day summit began on Thursday with a victim from Africa offering extraordinary testimony detailing how she had been raped by her priest, leading her to have three abortions over a dozen years. An influential cardinal from the Philippines, Luis Antonio Tagle, acknowledged the church's responsibility in the abuse.

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LUIS ANTONIO TAGLE: We humbly and sorrowfully admit that wounds have been inflicted by us, bishops, on the victims.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is in Rome covering the summit. Hi, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the goal of this gathering?

POGGIOLI: You know, keep in mind that in the past, the Catholic Church treated clerical sex abuse as an issue of sin and forgiveness. Now it's being pressed to treat it as a crime that requires punishment. The pope wants that every bishop here leaves Rome knowing exactly what he has to do in cases of priests abusing children in terms of responsibility, accountability and transparency. He wants them to understand that abuse is not a first-world problem but a global phenomenon.

And to press that point, as you said, there were these videos of these traumatic testimonies of five anonymous abuse survivors. One man accused church officials of having turned into murderers of the soul. And the pope also handed out a list of 21 concrete proposals, most of which have already been adopted in the U.S. But they're totally new for bishops in parts of the world where they play down or even deny that they have a clerical sex abuse problem.

INSKEEP: Well, it's interesting, Sylvia, since this is a hierarchical organization - word comes down from the pope normally - that in this case you have word coming up from victims because victims are at this gathering. What are you hearing from them?

POGGIOLI: Oh, they're here in droves. And they're planning a big rally tomorrow. There's a great deal of anger, exasperation with the pope. Here is Denise Buchanan, a Jamaican woman who's the co-founder of the group Ending Clergy Abuse.

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DENISE BUCHANAN: When you consider that in the United States, the 13th Amendment was an end to slavery - yes, there are problems, but that law made the difference. Why can't he do the same thing here? That law can end any abuse of children. It can end now.

POGGIOLI: Now, the pope's proposals to the bishops were very concrete, but they fell short of victims' groups' prime demand that it become universal church law that abuser priests and the bishops who cover up for them will be automatically dismissed from the clergy - in other words, zero tolerance.

Up to now, the Vatican has always justified the absence of universal rules by saying that clergy could be unfairly persecuted in authoritarian states where Catholics are a threatened minority. And yesterday, the Vatican's top sex crimes investigator, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, stressed that dismissal decisions should be taken on a case-by-case basis.

INSKEEP: Which sounds fair. But you can certainly understand people who would not trust the church to make that case-by-case decision. Is there reason to think that meaningful reform is on the way?

POGGIOLI: Depends on what part of the world we're talking about. Churches that have already been battered by scandals have adopted strict guidelines. Many parts of the world and cultures are nowhere near that. One of the summit organizers, Father Hans Zollner, pointed out that many languages, including Italian, the working language at the Vatican, does not have the equivalent word for accountability, which he says means there hasn't been much reflection in these cultures. So probably some basic news - new rules will be adopted. But you need to change the mindset, and that's going to take a long time.

INSKEEP: Sylvia, thanks for your insights.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.