Posted at 18:54 ET on February 27, 2019
A new election in a race at the Congress of North Carolina Congress was ordered after the Republican candidate recognized that his apparent victory was tainted by the manipulation of ballots by political agents working for him.
RALEIGH, NC (AP) – The political agent at the center of an election fraud scandal that engulfed a race at the North Carolina Congress was arrested Wednesday on charges of vote manipulation and conspiracy illegal. Four people working for him were also charged.
Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., 63, has been charged with ordering workers to collect and mail ballot papers from other people at the 2018 Republican Congress primaries and the 2016 general election. In North Carolina, it is illegal for anyone other than the voter or a close relative to handle a postal ballot, a measure to prevent tampering.
Prosecutors are still investigating evidence of manipulation of ballots by Dowless and other people working on behalf of GOP candidate Mark Harris during the congressional election last fall. in the predominantly rural 9th district, which includes part of Charlotte and extends east across several counties.
The indictment is the first charge in a scandal that casts doubt on the integrity of the elections and will leave a vacant Congress seat for months.
"These indictments should serve as a strong warning to anyone attempting to defraud the elections in North Carolina," said state elections chief Kim Westbrook Strach.
Dowless was arrested less than a week after the state's electoral committee decided that his work for Harris, starting with the primary, would tarnish the Republican's apparent victory in November. The council has ordered a new election but has not yet set a date.
Harris does not stand in the restricted election; his November Democratic opponent, Dan McCready, is.
Harris was not charged and denied knowing of any illegal practices on the part of those involved in his campaign. But he too could be examined. At last week's board hearing, he admitted to writing personal checks to Dowless in 2017, a potential breach if payments were not reported.
Mark Harris addresses the media at a press conference in Matthews, N.C., November 7, 2018. (Photo: Chuck Burton, AP)
Dowless denied wrongdoing and did not respond to phone calls and texting on Wednesday. A woman hung up on a call to Dowless's lawyer.
Dowless has been charged with unlawful possession of mail ballots, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. He was booked in a Raleigh prison. The other four were charged with unlawful possession of a mail ballot and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
The crimes "served to undermine the integrity of the postal voting process and public confidence in the results of the electoral process," the indictment says.
Dowless was accused of having ordered his workers to "mail the ballot to conceal the fact that the elector did not personally mail him" – an act which, according to the indictment, constituted an obstruction of justice.
In last fall's congressional elections, Harris had preceded McCready by 905 votes out of about 280,000, but the state's electoral council refused to certify Harris as the winner because of suspicions of fraud. Last week, Harris abruptly dropped his bid to be declared the winner and called for new elections. The council agreed.
More: Challenging North Carolina House Race: Electoral Council Decides New Elections
Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, who continued the charges announced Wednesday, is still considering evidence of irregularities in November. She said it may be weeks before decisions are made on charges.
According to the evidence gathered during the election committee hearing, Dowless and his assistants illegally collected voters' ballots by offering them to mail them and, in some cases, falsified signatures and filled in ballots. votes for local candidates.
Dowless refused to testify before the committee without being immune from prosecution.
Dowless is a political junkie convicted of the crime of perjury and insurance fraud – which led to a prison sentence in the 1990s – and several non-custodial offenses. He came to Harris' s attention because he was known to produce votes.
Harris said he would sign with Dowless for his 2018 campaign after finding that Bladen County 's man' s job had allowed one of his Republican rivals to get 98% of the votes by correspondence during the 2016 primary.
Harris hired Dowless despite repeated warnings from the candidate's son, now the federal prosecutor in Raleigh, that Dowless would likely have used illegal methods.
In fact, Dowless was part of the radar of election investigators in the states since 2010, when he was suspected of having bought votes but that he had never been charged. This is one of at least half a dozen cases in the past nine years, when prosecutors and election officials have received complaints of serious irregularities in Bladen County.
Dowless paid the other four people charged in this case in the spring of 2018, when Dowless and his team were on the payroll for the Harris campaign, and in the 2016 general election, when Dowless himself was elected water conservation post, prosecutors said.
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