A political operative hired by Republican Mark Harris led “a coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme” in last year’s general election in rural Bladen and Robeson counties, which are part of the congressional district, state elections director Kim Strach said Monday.

The operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., was called to testify Monday, but his attorney refused to put him on the stand without legal protection against prosecution for events he described. The board refused.

The first of what could be a days-long hearing produced Dowless’ workers testifying that they sometimes filled in votes on unfinished, unsealed mail-in ballots. But there was scant evidence that Harris knew about it or even benefited.