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NC election violations alleged in 2016 were aired with Justice Department official

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State findings of North Carolina election manipulation in 2016 were elevated as far as a top Justice Department official in Washington, D.C., but so far no charges have been filed by prosecutors at any level.

The head of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section met with staff from the North Carolina state board of elections about allegedly improper election activities in Bladen County that occurred during the 2016 elections, according to emails obtained by The News & Observer.

AnnaLou Tirol, the acting chief of the Public Integrity Section, was scheduled to meet with Josh Lawson, the state board’s general counsel, and Kim Strach, the board’s executive director, on Jan. 31, 2018. The meeting in Raleigh was set up by Brian S. Meyers, an attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

The meeting took place and there has been no email correspondence between the board and the Public Integrity Section since a follow-up email a day after the meeting, according to Patrick Gannon, spokesman for the state board.

The Public Integrity Section, based in Washington, D.C., supervises the nationwide investigation and prosecution of election crimes, according to its website. Section attorneys prosecute selected cases against federal, state, and local officials, and are available as a source of advice and expertise to other prosecutors and investigators, according to its site.

The 2016 allegations are being investigated by Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman. In 2017, the state board referred its investigation to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

“Our findings to date suggest that individuals and potentially groups of individuals engaged in efforts to manipulate election results through the absentee ballot process,” Strach wrote to John Stuart Bruce, the then-U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District, in a previously reported letter. “The evidence we have obtained suggest that those efforts may have taken place in the past and if not addressed will likely continue for future elections.”

To date, no one has brought any charges related to the allegations. Nor was anyone charged after a 2010 investigation into election practices in Bladen County. That investigation, too, resulted in a referral to prosecutors.

On Feb. 1, 2018, state board officials emailed James Mann, another Department of Justice official, an eight-page summary of its investigation into 2016 election actions by the Patriots For Progress PAC and the Bladen County Improvement Association PAC as well as actions by McCrae Dowless, a Bladen County political operative.

In the January 2018 summary, also previously reported, state investigators reported they found “information strongly suggesting” that Dowless “was paying certain individuals to solicit absentee request forms and to collect absentee ballots from Bladen County voters. In doing so, workers employed by Dowless were required to hand-carry the ballots to Dowless in order to be paid.” It is illegal, outside of very specific circumstances, to collect someone else’s absentee ballot, The News & Observer has reported.

Dowless is a person of interest in the board’s current investigation into possible election fraud in the North Carolina 9th Congressional District election in November. Dowless was hired by Republican Mark Harris for mail-in absentee ballot work in Bladen County. Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes, according to unofficial results.

The state board has refused to certify results of the election in the 9th district. The board was disbanded under a court ruling, but its staff is still investigating and plans to hold an evidentiary hearing after a new board is selected and sworn in as directed by a new state law. The seat remains vacant in the new Congress.

“The investigation into absentee voting irregularities in the 9th Congressional District continues today with as much intensity and focus as there was at the beginning,” Gannon told The News & Observer.

Republicans and Democrats have lamented the fact that nothing was done despite years of allegations and investigations, all leading to the current mess. Two dozen protesters gathered at the state board offices Friday and marched to the offices of U.S. Attorney Robert J. Higdon Jr. to deliver a petition with more than 2,000 signatures calling for an investigation into the 2018 elections.

“Did the U.S. attorney investigate the very solid evidence of vote stealing in the 2016 election? No,” said Jen Ferris, the director of reproductive rights at Progress North Carolina. “If they had, would we be in this situation now? No.”

News & Observer reporter Rashaan Ayesh in Raleigh contributed to this report.

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Brian Murphy covers North Carolina’s congressional delegation and state issues from Washington, D.C., for The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer and The Herald-Sun. He grew up in Cary and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. He previously worked for news organizations in Georgia, Idaho and Virginia. Reach him at 202.383.6089 or bmurphy@mcclatchydc.com.