Politics & Government

Bladen County political operative faces new perjury, obstruction of justice charges

A Republican political operative who worked for former congressional candidate Mark Harris in rural Bladen County faces felony charges in connection with the 2018 general election, an indictment revealed Tuesday by the Wake County district attorney shows.

Leslie McCrae Dowless was charged with two counts of felony obstruction of justice, perjury, solicitation to commit perjury, conspiracy to obstruct justice and possession of absentee ballot, the document showed.

Dowless was previously indicted on charges related to an absentee ballot harvesting operation he allegedly ran in Bladen County in 2016 and during the 2018 primary. His earlier charges include three counts of felonious obstruction of justice, two counts of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and two counts of possession of an absentee ballot.

Dowless remains free on a $30,000 bond and is expected to turn himself in for processing on the new charges.

Six of Dowless’ associates were also indicted and are expected to turn themselves in.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Tuesday that the investigation continues and additional indictments may follow. So far, no political candidates Dowless worked for have been charged in the probe.

“This is a large investigation,” Freeman said. “It involves multiple election cycles, multiple individuals alleged to be involved in this election fraud.”

Freeman has been handling the case since January, when the local prosecutor, Jon David, recused himself due to a conflict of interest. Federal prosecutors have also been reviewing evidence.

Dowless’ attorney, Cynthia Singletary, was not immediately available to comment. A woman who answered the phone at her office said, “At this point, she’s not able to say anything until she gets all the information she needs.”

None of the six others indicted could be reached for comment, nor could the voters whose ballots were alleged to have been handled illegally.

Likewise, Robert Hull, the Charlotte attorney listed as running the Mark Harris Legal Defense Fund, could not be reached Tuesday night for comment.

The Charlotte Observer and News & Observer have previously reported that Dowless was hired to work for Harris by Red Dome Group, a consulting firm that was running Harris’ campaign.

Andy Yates, who runs Red Dome Group, was not one of those charged on Tuesday. He could not immediately be reached by phone or email, but in the past he has denied that he knew anything illegal was happening. In a December 2018 interview, Yates distanced himself and Harris from Dowless.

“He was an independent contractor who worked on grassroots for the campaign, independent of the campaign,” Yates told The Observer at the time.

North Carolina law allows volunteers and campaign workers to collect absentee ballot request forms, but not the ballots themselves. According to Tuesday’s indictments, Dowless directed his workers to pick up ballots and sometimes to indicate falsely with a signature that they had watched the voter cast their vote.

“The absentee ballot fraud that occurred in the 9th Congressional District effectively disenfranchised voters in that district,” Elections Board Executive Director Karen Brinson-Bell said in a written statement.

”Democracy is best served by holding those who attempt to thwart it accountable,” she wrote.

Harris, the candidate Dowless worked for in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district during the 2018 general election, called for a new election in February at the end of a days-long hearing that examined allegations of absentee ballot fraud by Dowless and others working for his campaign.

At the hearing, one of Dowless’ workers, Lisa Britt, testified that Dowless paid workers to collect absentee ballot request forms and ballots and to drop them off at his office and home. She said Dowless told her how to avoid setting off alarms, instructing her in details as small as how to place stamps, The News & Observer earlier reported.

Britt, whose mother was previously married to Dowless, was among those indicted Tuesday. She was charged with conspiracy to commit felonious obstruction of justice, possession of an absentee ballot and voting as a felon.

But the hearing turned on dramatic testimony from Harris’ son John, who is an assistant U.S. attorney in North Carolina’s eastern district. John Harris testified that he had cautioned his father about Dowless based on the results of the 2016 primary. That year, Dowless worked for a different candidate, who did suspiciously well in getting mail-in votes, and Harris noticed that many absentee ballots seemed to be turned in in batches.

After the hearing, citing health reasons, Harris declined to run again. A special election to fill the seat is scheduled for Sept. 10.

The Republican candidate is Dan Bishop. Dan McCready, the Democratic candidate who ran against Harris, is still pursuing the seat in Congress.

Harris led McCready by 905 votes when the ballots were first counted last November, but the Board of Elections refused to certify the election because of the allegations of fraud.

An internal poll from McCready’s campaign recently found the two most recent candidates neck-and-neck, The Hill reported.

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