Politics & Government

Foes, then partners, foes again: Bladen politicos on opposite sides of election fight

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Election fraud investigation

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Two of the central figures in the disputed election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District have been feuding over campaign activity in Bladen County for nearly a decade.

The 2018 elections are not the first time McCrae Dowless has faced allegations of improper actions in an election in the Eastern North Carolina county. Nor is it the first time Jens Lutz, a former Bladen County board of elections official and former county Democratic Party chairman, has leveled allegations against Dowless.

Dowless, a Bladen County political operative and elected official, is a person of interest in the state elections board’s investigation into possible election fraud involving mail-in absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson counties. The board has twice declined to certify the 2018 returns in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District as a result.

In 2010, Dowless worked for Eric L. Bryan, a Democratic candidate for Bladen County sheriff. The Bryan campaign paid Dowless $775, according to campaign finance documents. Bryan downplayed Dowless’ role in his campaign, calling him just a “voter” and “supporter” in a 2010 Fayetteville Observer article.

Lutz, who was working as campaign strategist for Democrat Prentis Benston, Bryan’s primary election opponent, emailed state board investigators on April 29, 2010, with the subject line “Vote buying.” In the email, Lutz said that Dowless — which he spelled “Dallas” — had been driving voters to the polls and claimed that some residents of public housing “boasted about being paid,” according to documents obtained by The News & Observer.

Marshall Tutor, an investigator with the state board, told The Associated Press that his investigation found that “Dowless was throwing a lot of money around,” but he was unable to build a strong enough case against Dowless.

“There was no paper trail. Witnesses refused to give sworn statements or testify in court. No one was going to admit they were paid $5 to vote. But where there’s that much smoke, there was fire,” Tutor told the AP.

Driver’s license allegation

Dowless, Lutz continued in his email, had been pulled over for a driving violation and officers found that he had no driver’s license. Lutz’s email says that Bryan, who worked in the sheriff’s office, sent supporters to help solve the problem and were able to get Dowless a driver’s license by the afternoon.

“Now, one would have to ask, why the great interest by the candidate over a convicted felon who is driving voters to the polls for him,” Lutz wrote.

According to a North Carolina criminal records search, Dowless was cited for speeding on April 21, 2010. Lutz’s email came eight days later. There is no indication in the criminal record about Dowless’ license at the time, but two decades earlier he was cited for driving without a license.

Dowless was convicted of felony perjury in 1990 and felony fraud in 1992, The N&O previously reported. Lutz was convicted of impersonating a peace officer in 1990, a misdemeanor, according to a criminal records search.

In an email dated April 30, 2010, and including Lutz’s email, Don Wright, the then-general counsel for the state board, wrote to two state board investigators that Larry Hammond “confirmed this incident happened.” Hammond was director of the Bladen County Board of Elections at the time.

A later email from Lutz to the state board accused Hammond of jeopardizing the board’s investigation by alerting Bryan to it. He also indicated that Bryan knew the results of early voting before Election Day, when they are released publicly.

“Could anyone at the board of elections be privy to early vote counts and give that type of information to a candidate,” Lutz asked in his email.

Attempts to contact Bryan by phone were unsuccessful. He no longer works at the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office.

Similar allegations have been made about the 2018 election. A Democratic precinct worker said in an affidavit that election workers tallied the results of early voting before Election Day in violation of state rules and allowed outsiders to view them, as The N&O previously reported.

In a 2018 affidavit, Lutz contended Dowless was allowed to take and copy unredacted absentee ballot request forms from the Bladen County Board of Elections. Lutz also said Dowless had special access to information, including early vote totals.

Dowless, who worked for Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris, has denied any wrongdoing through his attorney. Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes in unofficial results.

State Republicans have accused Lutz and Joshua Malcolm, a former state board of elections member, of improper communications that the GOP says “compromised” the state board’s investigation.

Lutz told The N&O that his communications with Malcolm were appropriate interactions between a member of a county board of elections and a state board of elections member.

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Dowless voted in Democratic primaries until 2014, according to his voter history. Dowless and Lutz, despite the accusations made in 2010, started a political consulting firm together in 2014. It is no longer active. Lutz told WECT-TV that the partnership was only created so Lutz could “figure out how he was operating.”

Lutz resigned in December, telling The Charlotte Observer that “things had gotten way out of hand.”

2010 investigation

The state board’s investigation of election law violations in the 2010 Bladen County sheriff’s race made it as far as the state attorney general’s office, but investigators there weren’t able to uncover “any conduct or tactics that would rise to the level of a crime,” according to a 2013 letter obtained by The N&O.

State investigators conducted at least 33 interviews and collected numerous documents about “many allegations of voter fraud and assorted trickery,” according to the letter, which was written by Adren L. Harris, special deputy attorney general, to Jon David, the district attorney over Bladen County.

“I was unable to uncover any conduct or tactics that would rise to the level of a crime. Specifically, most of the alleged victims are elderly and lack the ability to recall the details that are necessary in pursuing criminal charges,” Adren Harris wrote.

The investigation involved the May primary in the sheriff’s race, according to an email from David’s office to The N&O. In the Democratic primary for sheriff, Bryan and Prentis Benston finished first and second in a five-way race, collecting 2,893 votes and 2,684 votes, respectively. Benston defeated Bryan in a runoff in June of 2010 and won the general election against Billy Ward, an unaffiliated candidate.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel investigated both the Benston and Bryan campaigns for suspected violations of the Hatch Act, which limits the political activities of federal employees, according to a 2010 Fayetteville Observer article.

Bryan, who was shot in the line of duty in 2002, is white. Bentson, who is black, became the first African-American sheriff in county history. Benston was defeated in his 2014 re-election bid by Republican Jim McVicker, who won re-election in 2018 and who paid Dowless $8,800 for “get out the vote” operations during the 2018 campaign season. McVicker’s 2018 campaign has been subpoenaed by the state board.

The letter is redacted where it lists the individual or individuals whom Harris considered bringing charges against. The letter does not identify the special agent assigned to the case, but it is copied to Special Agent W.T. Brady of the State Bureau of Investigation.

David’s office referred the case to the special prosecutions unit of the NC Department of Justice on July 22, 2011. Adren Harris is listed as a member of the special prosecutions section in his letter.

The letter is on NC Department of Justice letterhead. Roy Cooper, who is now governor, was the state’s attorney general in November of 2013.

The investigation into 2010 allegations of voter fraud would not be the last to probe elections in Bladen County.

There is an ongoing investigation by Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman into potential misconduct in the 2016 election in Bladen County, an investigation that included at least one meeting between the U.S. Department of Justice’s Public Integrity Section and members of the state board of elections staff, as first reported by The N&O.

Jim Morrill of The Charlotte Observer and Carli Brosseau of The News & Observer 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.
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