FILE - In this Dec. 5, 2018 file photo, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. poses for a portrait outside of his home in Bladenboro, N.C. The North Carolina political operative at the center of a ballot fraud scandal is facing criminal charges for his activities in the 2016 elections and the Republican primary in 2018. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, that Dowless was arrested after grand jury indictments alleging illegal possession of absentee ballots and obstruction of justice. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, File)

Political operative arrested in North Carolina scandal

February 27, 2019 - 1:43 pm

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The political operative at the center of an election fraud scandal that has engulfed a North Carolina congressional race was arrested Wednesday on charges of illegal ballot handling and conspiracy. Four people working for him were also charged.

Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., 63, was accused of directing workers to collect and mail in other people's absentee ballots during the 2018 Republican congressional primary and the 2016 general election. It is against the law in North Carolina for anyone other than the voter or a close relative to handle a mail-in ballot.

Prosecutors are still investigating evidence of ballot tampering by Dowless and others during last fall's congressional election in the mostly rural 9th District, which includes part of Charlotte and extends eastward across several counties.

The indictment represents the first charges in a scandal that has cast doubt on election integrity and will leave a congressional seat unfilled for months.

Dowless was arrested less than a week after the state elections board decided his work on behalf of Mark Harris, starting with the primary, tainted the GOP candidate's apparent victory in November. The board ordered a new election but hasn't set a date.

Harris is not running in the new election, but his Democratic opponent from November, Dan McCready, is.

Harris has not been charged with a crime and has denied knowledge of any illegal practices by those involved with his campaign. But he, too, could come under scrutiny. During last week's board hearing, he admitted writing personal checks to Dowless in 2017, a potential violation if the payments weren't reported.

Dowless has denied any wrongdoing and did not respond to phone and text messages Wednesday. A woman hung up on a call to Dowless' attorney.

Dowless was charged with illegal possession of absentee ballots, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. He was brought to a Raleigh jail and later released on $30,000 bail. The four others were charged with illegal possession of an absentee ballot and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

The crimes "served to undermine the integrity of the absentee ballot process and the public's confidence in the outcome of the electoral process," the indictment said.

Dowless was accused of directing his workers "to mail the absentee ballot in such a manner to conceal the fact that the voter had not personally mailed it himself" — an act the indictment said constituted obstruction of justice.

Harris led McCready by 905 votes out of about 280,000 cast last fall, but the state elections board refused to certify Harris as the winner because of the fraud suspicions. Last week, Harris abruptly dropped his bid to be declared the winner and called for a new election, acknowledging his lead was tainted by the allegations.

The four other people charged were paid by Dowless to collect ballots during the spring of 2018, when Dowless and his team were on the Harris campaign payroll, and in the 2016 general election, when Dowless himself ran for a local soil and water conservation post, prosecutors said.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, who pursued the charges, is also looking into evidence of irregularities during the November general election.

According to evidence at the elections board hearing, Dowless and his assistants illegally gathered up absentee ballots from voters by offering to put them in the mail, and in some cases forged signatures and filled in votes for local candidates.

Dowless refused to testify before the board without immunity from prosecution.

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