Politics & Government

Bladen County operative at center of NC election fraud investigation indicted, arrested

Dowless refuses to testify without immunity; Board of Elections refuses

McCrae Dowless, the person at the center of alleged election actiivites in NC's 9th District, refuses to testify unless granted immunity at a NC State Board of Elections hearing in Ralegh, NC, Feb 18, 2019. The board refused to grant immunity,.
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McCrae Dowless, the person at the center of alleged election actiivites in NC's 9th District, refuses to testify unless granted immunity at a NC State Board of Elections hearing in Ralegh, NC, Feb 18, 2019. The board refused to grant immunity,.

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Election fraud investigation

Read more about the investigation into the 9th Congressional District

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McCrae Dowless, the political operative at the center of the 9th District election fraud case, was arrested Wednesday after being indicted on charges related to collecting absentee ballots in the 2018 primary and 2016 election.

Dowless, 63, faces three felony charges of obstruction of justice, two charges of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and two charges of possession of absentee ballot.

The indictment from Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Dowless’ actions “served to undermine the integrity of the absentee ballot process and the public’s confidence in the outcome of the electoral process.”

The charges represent the first criminal prosecution in the absentee ballot fraud case that rocked the 9th Congressional District and resulted in the first new election ordered for fraud in North Carolina history. And according to Freeman, the charges may not be the last.

“It’s fair to assume that evidence related to the general election of 2018 will lead to additional charges of additional people,” Freeman said. “The focus of our investigation has been not only what the absentee ballot operation was but who was responsible for funding it and their level of knowledge (about it) . . . We’ll follow the evidence wherever that leads us.”

Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the State Board of Elections, called the indictments a “stern warning to anyone trying to defraud elections in North Carolina.”

“Today is a new and better day for elections in our state,” she said in a statement.

According to the indictment, Dowless “unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously” submitted absentee ballots and concealed that they were not sent by voters. North Carolina law makes it a felony for anyone other than a voter’s close relative to take possession of their absentee ballot. The charges relate to the 2016 general and 2018 primary elections.

During the 2018 race, Dowless worked for Republican Mark Harris, who appeared to win on election night with a razor-thin margin of 905 votes. The State Board of Elections refused to certify the results, however, after questions emerged about Dowless’ alleged ballot-harvesting scheme.

Harris did not respond to a message seeking comment Wednesday.

DowlessMug.JPG
Wake County Detention Center

He testified during a State Board of Elections hearing this month that he hired Dowless after the 2016 race, when he saw that his opponent Todd Johnson had racked up 221 out of 225 absentee ballots cast in Bladen County during the Republican primary, which Harris had lost.

In a 2017 email to former Judge Marion Warren, the friend who introduced him to Dowless, Harris said he wanted to meet “the guy whose absentee ballot project for Johnson could have put me in the US House this term had I known and had he been helping us.”

The state board unanimously ordered a new election because of the evidence of fraud in Bladen County. Harris said Tuesday that he will not run in the new election, and endorsed Union County commissioner Stony Rushing in his stead.

Dowless was called to appear at the Board of Elections hearing, but refused to testify unless he was granted immunity. The board declined.

Four other people — Caitlyn Croom, Matthew Matthis, Tonia Gordon and Rebecca Thompson — also face charges related to absentee ballot collection in Bladen County over the past two elections, Freeman said.

Dowless — who was also elected Soil & Water Conservation District supervisor for Bladen in 2016 — was arrested in Bladenboro by the State Bureau of Investigation and taken to the Wake County Detention Center. Freeman said he was being held on $30,000 secured bail. It was not immediately clear whether Dowless was still in custody late Wednesday.

He faces up to two years in prison, according to Freeman.

A woman at the office of Dowless’ attorney, Cynthia Singletary, said, “No comment,” and hung up Wednesday. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for March 25 in Wake County.

Marc Elias, the attorney who represented Democratic candidate Dan McCready before the state elections board, called Dowless’ indictment “an important first step in the criminal process.”

An ongoing probe

Freeman’s office said the criminal investigation is ongoing. The investigation recently completed by the North Carolina State Board of Elections will be forwarded to the State Bureau of Investigation within 30 days, Freeman said.

Wednesday’s charges go back more than two years. In 2016, Croom was among those who submitted handwritten affidavits saying they were paid by Dowless to collect ballots. She wrote in the affidavit that she and a woman named “Kelly” met Dowless and he offered them $225, in two installments, to collect absentee ballot requests from voters.

Collecting the absentee ballot request forms — which cause an actual absentee ballot to be sent to voters — is legal. Collecting the actual ballots is not, and that’s what Croom and Mathis wrote that they did, on behalf of Dowless, according to their affidavits.

“We would then start to go out and collect ballots,” Croom wrote. If they got 20, they’d get the other half of the $225. “After we had all 20 of them witness and were signed we would take them back to McCrae. He would then take them and tell us he would handel (sic) mailing them off.”

Matthis wrote that he also met someone named “Kelly” two months before the 2016 election, and she asked if he wanted a job.

“Being broke I said ‘yes I would,’” Matthis wrote.

He met Dowless in Dublin the next day. Dowless told him that he would collect 20 absentee ballot requests and then go back and get the ballots from voters, Matthis wrote, and he’d get $225.

If anyone asked what the money was for, Dowless said to tell them it was for time and gas, not ballots, according to the affidavit.

“Once I went and got the ballots I, along with my girlfriend Caitlyn, were to witness the ballot’s signature and then return them to McCrae,” he said. After state investigators started asking questions, Matthis wrote in his affidavit that Dowless told him to say Dowless had instructed him to take the ballots “straight back and not mess with them.”

The obstruction of justice charges against Dowless stem from him allegedly “counseling and encouraging” Mathis and Croom to lie to investigators. The charges against Gordon stem from absentee ballot collection in 2016 as well.

The State Board of Elections, which has investigative but not criminal charging power, forwarded its 2016 investigation to the U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of North Carolina. It’s unclear why no charges were filed as a result.

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the N.C. GOP, questioned why Dowless wasn’t charged before.

“Why was he not indicted years ago?” Woodhouse said.

Freeman, the district attorney, said the investigation has been a long one. The evidence, she said, needed to be “well corroborated so it would stand up in court.”

“Meeting that standard,” she said, “takes time.”

McCrae Dowless is at the center of controversy in North Carolina's 9th district, but most of the time he's stayed behind the scenes.

2018 election

While Croom, Matthis and Gordon were charged in connection with the 2016 election, Thompson was charged in connection with the 2018 primary election. The indictment alleges she collected at least four absentee ballots in the run-up to the May 8 primary, while conspiring with Dowless (who faces charges stemming from both elections).

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.

Not charged were Lisa Britt and Kelly Hendrix. They both testified at the Board of Elections hearing that Dowless paid them to collect absentee ballots in the 2018 election.

Hendrix is mentioned in the indictment against Dowless, which alleges that she conspired with Dowless and Thompson in the ballot collecting operation. The conspiracy was not limited to them but included unspecified “others,” according to the indictment.

Under questioning on the witness stand during last week’s board hearing, Hendrix tearfully recounted how she met Dowless when she needed a ride to her job at Hardee’s.

“I needed a ride to work that day,” she said. “He resembled my dad so much that I just connected with him.”

She testified that Dowless gave her money for gas and other expenses once she began collecting ballots for him.

Britt — Dowless’s former stepdaughter — testified that said she was initially paid $125 per 50 ballots, but that changed to a $200 weekly flat rate once they realized it was harder than anticipated to convince people to hand over their ballots. On the stand, she said that they would even fill out incomplete and unsealed absentee ballots they collected, voting for Republican candidates in local races.

Britt also said that Dowless gave her a slip of paper days before the hearing that instructed her to say Dowless had done nothing wrong and to take the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying.

She said she had trusted him because he was a father figure to her for more than three decades.

“There’s a lot of things that you would kind of place trust in from someone that’s your father figure,” Britt said. “I didn’t think my father would send me to do something illegal.”

Aaron Simpson, a spokesman for McCready, called the indictments “an important first step in sending a clear message to all those involved in the historic election fraud.”

“If you cheat, if you attack our democracy, if you silence voices, if you steal votes, you will face the full force of justice,” he said in a statement. “Every voter in North Carolina deserves a continued and complete investigation, one that holds every operative, candidate and party leader responsible for their actions.”

Also Wednesday, the elections board announced it will meet Monday to set a timetable for a new 9th District election.

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Ely Portillo covers local and state government for the Charlotte Observer, where he has previously written about growth, crime, the airport and a five-legged puppy. He grew up in Maryland and attended Harvard University.


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