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Ben Carson accused of ‘witch-hunt’ by senior member of his department

Criticism comes after a week of controversy over Carson’s department spending on expensive office furniture

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Ben Carson accused of ‘witch-hunt’ by senior member of his department” was written by Jamiles Lartey and Jon Swaine, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 6th March 2018 21.14 UTC

A second senior official in the Department of Housing and Urban Development has publicly criticised the secretary, Ben Carson, accusing him of leading a “witch-hunt” against some career bureaucrats in the department.

Marcus Smallwood told Carson in an email on Tuesday that Hud’s civil servants were working in fear after the demotion of his colleague Helen Foster and Carson’s rejection of her claims.

The Guardian revealed last week that Foster had alleged to a federal watchdog that she was reassigned to a lesser role in part because she refused to break a legal spending limit on the redecoration of Carson’s office in Washington. Her demotion is now being examined by the Republican-controlled House oversight committee.

“Helen Foster is not the only person at Hud that has been persecuted in this witch-hunt under your watch,” Smallwood, Hud’s director of records management, wrote in the email, which he shared with the Guardian.

“She is the only person who has been brave enough to stand on principle and put her career, reputation, and livelihood on the line. The rest of us have operated in fear.”

Raffi Williams, a spokesman for Hud, said: “Mr Smallwood’s email is under review.”

Smallwood accused Carson of smearing Foster as a liar by suggesting in a tweet that her allegation was unsubstantiated. In a Facebook post on Monday, Carson further complained without evidence that he had been the victim of “character attacks”.

“A week has gone by and it is now very clear that Helen Foster was not lying about the furniture purchases,” said Smallwood.

After Foster’s complaint was made public, it emerged that Hud had ordered a ,000 dining set for Carson’s office. Hud claimed the set was not subject to the ,000 limit Foster said she sought to uphold, because it was for the benefit of all staff. Carson later asked for the furniture order to be scrapped.

Smallwood asked Carson to make a public apology to Foster and to note “that all employees at Hud should feel free to follow the law, ask when they are unsure, and not fear retribution”.

The email on Tuesday, which was copied to several of Carson’s top deputies, alleged that Hud would probably be unable to comply with the House oversight committee’s request for all emails relating to Foster’s demotion “because there has been a concerted effort to stop email traffic regarding these matters”.

Williams, the Hud spokesman, denied there had been any halt to emails on the topic and said: “The House oversight committee will receive a complete response to their query.”

Smallwood also lent support to a separate allegation by Foster that politically sensitive requests made to the department under the Freedom of Information Act (Foia) were handled unusually.

Foster said that despite overseeing Foia requests for the department, she was sidelined when a pair of requests were made for emails including discussions of Donald Trump. She said she was told by a department lawyer that this was because she was perceived to be a Democrat.

Smallwood told Carson that “undue influence was placed on Helen, and myself to process FOIA request of a political nature in a fashion different from the normal process”.

Smallwood accused Carson and senior Hud managers of reprisals against not only Foster for blowing the whistle on the furniture spending, but also of letting important business go uncompleted due to the interdepartmental feud.

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Election 2018

GOP Candidate in Disputed U.S. House Race Not Running Again

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Raleigh, N.C. (AP) — The Republican candidate whose narrow lead in a North Carolina congressional race was thrown out because of suspicions of ballot fraud announced Tuesday he will not run in the newly ordered do-over election, saying he needs surgery late next month.

The withdrawal of Mark Harris, a candidate hobbled by links to alleged ballot fraud, could help Republicans in their effort to keep the competitive seat in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

Harris announced his decision in a statement that focused on his health problems. He did not mention the alleged ballot fraud scandal.

Harris had led Democrat Dan McCready by just 905 votes after November’s election, but the outcome was never certified. State election officials grew concerned about reports that an operative working for Harris was illegally tampering with absentee ballots.

Harris last week stopped a special state elections board hearing by declaring he couldn’t continue to testify. He cited health problems caused by a blood infection that required hospitalization and led to two strokes. He also said he agreed that a new election should be called, despite his previous calls to be declared the winner.

Shortly after Harris spoke last week, the elections board ordered a new contest . A date for the new election has not been announced.

On Tuesday, Harris encouraged his supporters to rally around Stony Rushing, a commissioner in Union County. The local official from the Charlotte suburbs would “stand firm on so many of the issues that concern us, including the issue of life, our national security, and religious freedom,” Harris said.

Rushing, a firing range owner and licensed gun seller, has been a county commissioner off and on for more than eight years, first taking office in 2002. He didn’t return a phone call to his shooting range seeking comment on Tuesday.

Only one other GOP candidate — former state Sen. Tommy Tucker of Union County — has publicly expressed interest in running for the seat. In a phone interview, Tucker said he’s “95 percent sure” that he plans to run for the seat. He said he had no idea how Harris’ near-endorsement of Rushing would affect the campaign.

Former U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, whom Harris defeated in last May’s primary, told The Associated Press in an interview that it was “good for the country and the party” that Harris wasn’t running. When asked why, he said simply: “I think it’s just obvious.”

Pittenger again closed the door on seeking his old job, saying he’s involved in a series of conferences on counter-terrorism and security issues.

Former Gov. Pat McCrory said Monday he wouldn’t seek the seat. He was previously mayor of Charlotte, a part of which is in the congressional district.

McCready has been assembling a new campaign staff and raising money to run again in the district that stretches from Charlotte through several counties to the east along the South Carolina border. His campaign finance report showed McCready raised $487,000 during the final five weeks of 2018. His campaign sent out a campaign fundraising plea late Thursday, citing the state elections board’s decision.

McCready formally announced his intention to run Friday before several dozen supporters at a brewery in Waxhaw, near Charlotte.

“Folks, there’s a lot of people that have had their confidence shaken in recent weeks because of the fraud conducted by Mark Harris’s campaign,” McCready said. “There’s a lot of people right now in North Carolina that are disillusioned in our electoral process.”

He told the crowd that he and his team were going to “knock on every door” in the district to earn votes and to reassure constituents that he’s the type of politician who will do the right thing.

“We’re going to talk to people about doing what’s right instead of what’s wrong,” he said.

Harris struggled during testimony last week over why he prepared for his primary election last year by seeking out and signing up Bladen County political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless, a convicted felon who had been accused of ballot fraud in the 2016 elections. The state elections board turned over evidence of his actions in 2017 to federal prosecutors, who took no action.

According to testimony and other findings detailed at the hearing, Dowless conducted an illegal “ballot harvesting” operation: He and his assistants gathered up absentee ballots from voters by offering to put them in the mail.

Dowless’ workers in rural Bladen County testified that they were directed to collect blank or incomplete ballots, forge signatures on them and even fill in votes for local candidates.

It is generally against the law in North Carolina for anyone other than the voter or a family member to handle someone’s completed ballot.

No criminal charges have been filed in the case . Dowless declined to testify last week after the elections board refused to grant him immunity from prosecution based on what he might say.

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Election 2018

North Carolina Election Board Unanimously Agrees To New House Election

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Feb 21 (Reuters) – North Carolina’s elections board on Thursday unanimously ordered a new election for a U.S. House seat after officials said corruption surrounding absentee ballots tainted the results of last November’s vote.

The bipartisan board’s 5-0 decision came after Republican candidate Mark Harris requested a new vote, telling the panel that evidence of possible ballot fraud had undermined confidence in the election.

In the televised hearing, board members said “corruption” and the “absolute mess with the absentee ballots” had cast doubt on the fairness of the contest and voters deserved a fresh election.

Harris’ request for a new vote came as a surprise. For months, he had said he should be declared the victor in the 9th Congressional District after he led Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes out of 282,717 ballots cast on Nov. 6. Elections officials, however, had refused to certify him as the winner due to allegations of irregularities in the vote.

“Through the testimony I’ve listened to over the past three days, I believe a new election should be called,” Harris said at a hearing in Raleigh. “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.”

Harris’ statement came on the fourth day of a hearing on whether his campaign benefited from what state investigators called illegal election manipulation by political consultant Leslie McCrae Dowless.

Earlier on Thursday, Harris said he had known Dowless was going door to door on the candidate’s behalf to help voters obtain absentee ballots, a process that is legal. Harris said Dowless assured him he would not collect the ballots from the voters, which would violate state law.

But residents of at least two counties in the district said Dowless and his paid workers collected incomplete absentee ballots and, in some instances, falsely signed as witnesses and filled in votes for contests left blank, according to testimony at the hearing.

Kim Strach, executive director of the state’s election board, earlier this week called the operation a “coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme.”

According to text messages Harris’ attorneys turned over to the board on Thursday, Harris sought a meeting with Dowless when he learned that Dowless had led a successful absentee ballot program for Republican candidate Todd Johnson during a 2016 congressional primary election.

In those messages to a Bladen County judge, Harris asked about “the guy whose absentee ballot project for Johnson could have put me in the US House this term, had I known, and he had been helping us.”

Harris campaign officials have said they did not pay Dowless to do anything illegal, and Dowless has maintained his innocence. (Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Dan Grebler and James Dalgleish)

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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Returns To The High Court After Bout With Cancer

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WASHINGTON, Feb 15 (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is back at the court after missing oral arguments in January as she recovered from lung cancer surgery at home, a court official said on Friday.

Ginsburg, who will turn 86 in March, had been working from home and participating and voting in cases since her December surgery by reading argument transcripts and case briefs. She attended the justices’ closed-door conference to discuss cases on Friday.

While Ginsburg was expected to attend the next session of oral arguments beginning on Feb. 19, court officials could not confirm she would be on the bench next week.

Last month, the court announced that Ginsburg’s recovery was on track and that there was “no evidence” of remaining disease.

Ginsburg, who joined the court in 1993, underwent a surgical procedure called a pulmonary lobectomy on Dec. 21 at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York to remove two cancerous nodules in her left lung. She was released from the hospital on Dec. 25.

Ginsburg missed oral arguments in January for the first time in her lengthy career on the court, fueling speculation about her ability to continue in the job. (Reporting by Andrew Chung; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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