N.C. GOP investigating allegations that chairman requested a “brute force” attack on party website

NCGOP exteriorRALEIGH – The North Carolina Republican Party has contacted law enforcement officials in Raleigh and launched an internal investigation after receiving a tip last week that a computer technician was instructed by the elected chairman to crash the party’s GOP convention websites and replace them with alternative websites. In a sworn affidavit obtained by the North State Journal, the computer technician said that Chairman Hasan Harnett asked him to replace the N.C. GOP sites with ones housing a new fundraising system that, if implemented, would have funneled payments for the state convention out of party accounts and into ones under the control of the chairman.

The allegations appear to be lighting a movement within the party’s governing Central Committee to censure or remove Harnett as chairman. According to those close to the N.C. GOP, members will consider, at a minimum, severely limiting Harnett’s authority to speak on behalf of the party until the investigation is complete, but it may also begin circulating a petition for his removal as chairman. The petition would require 50 signatures and must pass by a two-thirds vote of the party’s more than 600-member Executive Committee. The smaller Central Committee, which has 30 voting members who are elected every two years, took the unusual step this week of calling its own meeting for March 20, where members may consider emergency actions. Usually the party chairman formally calls the Central Committee to meet.

Dallas Woodhouse.

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director, N.C.GOP

The efforts allegedly launched by Harnett are described in a sworn and notarized affidavit reviewed by the North State Journal on the condition that the accuser remains anonymous until the investigation is complete. N.C. GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse would not comment on the allegations. However, several high-ranking members of the party’s governing committees confirmed the underlying details of the events’ timeline and the existence of the investigation. Mr. Harnett did not return requests for comment on the story, but 12th District Chairman Daniel Rufty did speak to the issue.

“Dallas Woodhouse has shut the chairman out of all sites and took it a step further by taking down the chairman’s email,” said Rufty. “It’s all a lie. He is not a hacker and to make those kind of accusations shows that this guy is out of control.”

According to staff members, on the morning of March 1, a call was placed to Woodhouse saying that a cyberattack of the party’s websites was imminent, potentially compromising the party’s financial information, vendor and donor databases, and email accounts.

‘shut off the water’

While some of the information later turned out to be inaccurate, the tip resulted in a frantic and chaotic scene at the party’s Hillsborough Street headquarters in Raleigh. Staff members shut down computer systems, contacted high-level donors to reassure them, warned database and financial vendors, and cut off emails of multiple remote users.

“When you have a water leak, you have to shut off the water to find out where it’s coming from,” said Central Committee member Dr. Ada Fisher. “The executive director did exactly what I would expect him to do, which is to investigate and shut it down.”

Staff members say that the emails of Harnett, Vice Chairman Michelle Nix and Woodhouse were all off online for several hours and were disconnected from servers overnight for the next several days.

“I was made aware early last week that there was a security threat. In consultation with the staff we took emergency measures to protect the party’s finances,” said David Cozart, treasurer of N.C. GOP. “It was urgent and the staff believed it to be a credible threat. Our prompt action ensured that we do have control over our cash and there is no adverse impact on the party’s finances.”

Cutting off of Harnett’s email with no warning or explanation caused loud protests by the chairman, including emails to hundreds of news outlets and supporters in which he accused Woodhouse and party staff of undermining his authority because he is the first black party chairman.

“Our party needs Hasan to be successful,” said Rufty. “This kind of treatment has never been done before and it’s easy to think it’s because he is black.”

Woodhouse, who did not respond to texts and emails, told reporters at the time that the party was dealing with “major security issues.”

NCGOP Chairman Hasan Harnett

N.C.GOP Chairman Hasan Harnett, following his election as chairman in June 2015

Later in the day on March 1, the N.C. GOP was contacted by a computer expert with more information about the threat. According to his affidavit, he learned on Facebook of Harnett being “locked out” of the party’s website. In the week before, Harnett had publicly criticized party staff because he was removed from the administrative access list for the N.C.GOP website and mass email distribution service.

The computer expert contacted Harnett through his local party district chairman and offered to help him regain access. In his affidavit, he swears that he presented Harnett with three options to regain access: find the password, speak to the party’s junior accountant who controls passwords, or bring down the site with “brute force.”

Harnett allegedly said that the executive director and accountant were “against him” and requested that the computer expert bring down the N.C. GOP website and replace it with another site that contains a separate payment system for tickets to the annual convention, putting the money into an account that Harnett controls. According to some members of the Central Committee, the state party has not yet uncovered what Harnett planned to do with the money collected by the alternative site.

“Mr. Harnett then told me that he preferred to do a brute force attack,” reads the affidavit. “I was concerned by Mr. Harnett’s statements because he had requested me to hack and potentially damage the North Carolina Republican Party’s website, that he did not want to go through accounting and that he was trying to raise money through an alternative website.”

Convention tickets

The phone call was the tipping point in what appears to be a high-stakes game of chicken among the chairman, party staff, and the Central Committee over the convention’s ticket prices.

The state convention, scheduled for May 6 in Raleigh, includes two sessions to deal with party business, which this year will include work to establish a platform for delegates to take to the national Republican nominating convention in June in Cleveland, Ohio. The formal process by which the state convention is conducted is crucial to insure that decisions cannot later be contested at the national convention, party insiders say.

At the N.C. GOP’s convention last year, Harnett was elected chairman, running in part on a promise to offer attendance to future conventions for free or a reduced rate. Fees to attend in 2015 in Raleigh were $75 per person.

“While all of us would like a lower convention price, his lack of success in raising operating funds for the party make it impossible at this time,” said a Central Committee member who wished to remain anonymous. “Although he campaigned for lower convention prices, he also campaigned as being able to raise a lot of money – a goal which remains elusive. In the nine months he has served as chairman, he has not raised enough money to keep the party solvent for one month.”

At the regular meeting on Feb. 28, Harnett formally opposed the proposed price of $90 per person to attend the business sessions of the convention, calling it a “poll tax” and instead requesting that attendance be free. Saying there was no alternative way to fund the event, the Central Committee overwhelmingly passed the ticket price, directing the chairman to formally call the convention, in accordance with the party rules. Members say they believed the matter to be settled and moved on with other party business, including how to deal with the newly drawn congressional maps.

The call to convention

According to members of the committee, Rufty sided with Harnett, repeatedly arguing that the chairman in his duty to “call the convention” could also set the prices, over-ruling the Central Committee. After the Feb. 28 meeting, in an email exchange obtained by the NSJ, Harnett directed Woodhouse to change the “call” letter, reducing prices by half, against the vote of the Central Committee.

“Dallas, you are indeed my brother from another mother and I know the above runs counter to our previous discussion. At this time, however, I’m taking you off the hook (per the recent Central Committee vote of 2/28 on the general session fees of $90) and I will handle this,” Hasan’s email read.

Woodhouse responded, “You have attempted to order me to do something that you have no authority to do in a way that would be grounds for my termination via going against the direct wishes of the Central Committee via vote. Blogs and social media now have the expectation for me to do something that I can’t and will not do… further communication on this matter should be directed to legal counsel and the Central Committee as a whole as they are the governing authority.”

HH call to convention fb post (1)The exchange brought a power struggle within the party to a new level. When Woodhouse refused, Harnett sent his own “call to convention” using what appeared to be the same email system used during his campaign for chairman. He followed the email with letters mailed through the U.S. postal service.  Harnett posted images of mailing his letters on his Facebook page.

On March 7, the N.C. GOP’s attorney sent a memo to Harnett and the Central Committee saying that in Harnett’s call to the convention “he unilaterally purported to set fees different from those approved by the Central Committee… In this respect the State Chairman acted ultra vires (beyond his authority) under the North Carolina Republican Party Plan of Organization.”  Still, the general counsel said the chairman’s letter did meet the requirements of a formal call to convention by including place and time of the meetings. Amid confusion over the call, the party sent out another official letter that included the prices established by the Central Committee, saying it had to cover its legal bases should the convention be challenged.

Some Central Committee members say they are concerned that the chairman sending one conventional call with no return address or reply envelope and the N.C. GOP sending out another call could result in significant challenges to the party’s business including elections for delegates to the party’s national nominating convention and elections of potential presidential electors should North Carolina vote for a Republican candidate for the White House.

“He has confused people, they don’t know what to believe and who to trust and this is potentially a criminal act, we just don’t know,” said a second Central Committee member who also wished to remain anonymous. “What bothers many of us is his insistence that the Central Committee is trying to take him down. We want him to succeed, we’ve done whatever we can to help him succeed, but we are a donation entity. We have to keep the lights on.”

weekend meeting

Now, with the state convention less than two months away and 72 Republican delegates at stake, the Central Committee is slated to meet this weekend.

“The Central Committee is going to fill this thing (the investigation) with their people and go off on a witch hunt,” said Rufty of the internal investigation.

“It could not have come at a worse time, as we need to have our attention focused on winning an election in November rather than this folly,” said Garry Terry,  first district chairman and member of the Central Committee. “My hope is that Chairman Harnett will steer the energy that’s being wasted on this bump in the road and direct it toward electing Republicans statewide.”

Committee members say they are in constant contact with the Republican National Committee to ensure that the North Carolina’s delegation has not been compromised for the national nominating convention in June.

“I believe the chairman is sincerely trying to fulfill his campaign promises without realizing that control rests with the Central Committee,” said Dr. Fisher. She and others say Harnett’s election as chairman may be a cautionary tale as more voters turn to what they perceive as a non-establishment outsider in campaigns. “There is general disgust with leadership on both sides of the aisle, as indicated by the popularity of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Be careful of what you ask, because it may not be what you think.”