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Grand jury to hear findings of investigation into alleged NC ballot scheme, DA says

Witness: Dowless told workers to stick together ‘because they don’t have anything on us.’

Witness Lisa Britt testifies about a meeting at the home of McRae Dowless where he told those working for him to stick together "because they don't have anything on us." Britt testified at a Board of Elections hearing in Raleigh, NC Feb. 18, 2019.
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Witness Lisa Britt testifies about a meeting at the home of McRae Dowless where he told those working for him to stick together "because they don't have anything on us." Britt testified at a Board of Elections hearing in Raleigh, NC Feb. 18, 2019.

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Election fraud investigation

Read more about the investigation into the 9th Congressional District

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A grand jury will consider whether criminal charges are warranted in an alleged mail-in ballot scheme in eastern North Carolina, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Friday.

Freeman said she hopes to present findings from her investigation into the 2016 general election and 2018 primary election in Bladen County to a grand jury within the next month. It’s not yet clear whether the findings would be heard in Wake County or Bladen County.

The State Board of Elections held a hearing this week about mail-in ballot irregularities in last year’s general election in Congressional District 9. Freeman said her review of the evidence the board amassed could lead to additional criminal charges.

Freeman said the scope of her investigation has steadily expanded since January 2018, when Jon David, the prosecutor in Bladen, Columbus and Brunswick counties, asked her to take on the case. He bowed out due to conflicts of interest.

“As this investigation, which was originally just into the general election of 2016, has been going on,” Freeman said, “additional irregularities or things that should be reviewed as part of a criminal investigation have come to light.”

Mark Harris' son, John Harris testifies that he had concerns about Dowless McCrae and voiced those concerns to his father prior to Dowless joining the campaign during the NC 9 hearing at the State Board of Elections, Feb. 20, 2019.

One of the things that has come to light is that Marion Warren, the director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts and the person who had to approve Freeman taking over the investigation, had a conflict of interest of his own. Warren introduced Mark Harris, the Republican candidate in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, to McCrae Dowless, the Bladen County political operative whose mail-in absentee ballot program is under scrutiny.

Freeman said that when she and David learned about that introduction, they appealed to David Hoke, Warren’s deputy, to approve the transfer. That was in December 2018, she said. Reached by phone Friday, Warren declined to comment. He has announced plans to take a new job at Regent University School of Law in Virginia next month.

Freeman’s investigation includes an examination of potential crimes involving mail-in absentee ballots, as well as the financing of any related operation and the people who had knowledge of it. Additionally, Freeman said, “If there was evidence of any wrongdoing in response to the state board’s authority that would also be something we would anticipate reviewing.”

At a State Board of Elections hearing this week that delved into absentee ballot irregularities in the 9th Congressional District during the 2018 general election, the board’s executive director, Kim Strach, outlined what she called an “a coordinated, unlawful and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme” and noted that “efforts were made to obstruct this investigation.”

Strach’s first witness, Lisa Britt, testified that Dowless, the political operative who she also considers her stepfather, had given her a piece of paper with instructions on what to say during the hearing. She also testified that Dowless arranged a television interview in which she claimed to have committed no crimes, although she had already told state investigators that she and others working for Dowless collected ballots from voters, a crime in North Carolina.

Harris may face new scrutiny related to his testimony. He repeatedly denied telling anyone that emails between his son John and him would not be part of evidence. He later admitted that testimony was incorrect. The hearing ended Thursday after Harris called for a new election. The board voted unanimously for that outcome.

Mark Harris called for a new election in the disputed 9th District on Thursday afternoon, Feb. 21, 2019. He said he suffered two strokes in January and is “struggling” to get through the hearing, now in its fourth day.

The 2018 evidence collected by the state board will likely soon be turned over to Freeman. She said she has a meeting with the board scheduled for next week.

“Ideally they’ve done a very thorough investigation and talked to over 100 witnesses, and it’s possible that there will be very little additional follow up that the State Bureau of Investigation will need to do,” Freeman said.

Freeman has not publicly identified any targets of her investigation and has declined to discuss possible charges. No one has been offered immunity as part of the investigation, she said.

The state board has also talked to federal prosecutors about the investigation. On Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of North Carolina declined to comment.

Staff writer Brian Murphy contributed to this report.

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Carli Brosseau is a reporter at The News & Observer who often analyzes databases as part of her work. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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