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Political operative at center of absentee fraud in Bladen arrested in criminal investigation

McCrae Dowless, center, pictured with his attorney Cynthia Singletary, was arrested Wednesday on felony charges related to an illegal absentee ballot scheme in the 9th congressional district. (Photo by Juli Leonard/Raleigh News and Observer)

The political operative at the center of an illegal absentee ballot scheme in Bladen and Robeson counties has been arrested on related felony charges.

Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr.’s arrest comes less than a week after the State Board of Elections ordered a new election in the 9th congressional district. Republican candidate Mark Harris paid Dowless to run his absentee ballot program in Bladen, Robeson and Cumberland counties, and it was later discovered he had been directing others to collect those forms, fill them out and mail them in batches to the local boards of elections.

Dowless has been indicted in Wake County on three counts of obstruction of justice, two counts of conspiracy to obstruct justice and two counts of possession of an absentee ballot. Four others were also indicted: Caitlyn Croom, Matthew Mathis, Tonia Gordon and Rebecca Thompson — they all face charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and possession of an absentee ballot, and Mathis was additionally indicted on two counts of falsely certifying an absentee ballot.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) reported arresting Dowless on Wednesday in Bladenboro without incident. He was taken to the Wake County Detention Center.

A woman who answered the phone Wednesday at the law offices of Cynthia Singletary confirmed she was still representing Dowless, but said she was unavailable and would not be making any comments about his arrest at the moment.

Singletary advised Dowless not to testify last week at an evidentiary hearing without immunity from criminal prosecution granted by the State Board. The board declined to offer immunity and continued on with the hearing, which was held to determine whether there would be a new election in the 9th congressional district.

Individuals who worked for Dowless testified at the hearing that he recruited them to commit election fraud and described his operation. His stepdaughter, Lisa Britt, said Dowless paid between $150 and $175 cash per 50 absentee ballot registrations they collected and were later paid $125 per 50 actual absentee ballots they picked up, which changed in the last couple weeks before the election to a flat rate of $200 per week.

She also testified about the lengths Dowless went to to avoid raising red flags to the Board of Elections, including using the same color ink for witnesses’ signatures as voters’ and mailing ballots from voters’ nearby post boxes. And in what Board Chairman Bob Cordle described as the most shocking testimony, Britt said at the hearing that Dowless typed up a statement for her to communicate to the State Board instead of testifying.

“I can tell you that I haven’t done anything wrong in the election, and McCrae Dowless has never told me to do anything wrong, and to my knowledge, he has never done anything wrong, but I am taking the 5th Amendment because I don’t have an attorney and I feel like you will try to trip me up,” the typed-letter stated. “I am taking the 5th.”

Harris, who paid Dowless through Red Dome Group more than $130,000 for his efforts, testified that he had no idea that he was breaking the law. His son, John Harris, testified though that he warned his parents several times about Dowless’ suspicious tactics before the campaign hired him.

On the fourth day of testimony last week, the elder Harris, facing cross examination from his opponent’s attorney, conceded that he thought there should be a new election after all. He appeared to win the race by 905 votes over Democrat Dan McCready.

Harris’ attorney initially reported that he would run again in the new election, but Harris has since said he will not due to health issues. McCready does plan to run again.

The criminal investigation into 9th congressional district fraud is ongoing, according to the SBI.

The State Board commended Freeman in a statement Wednesday and said it plans to continue to support efforts to prosecute coordinated election fraud in North Carolina, including activities during the 2016 and 2018 elections.

“These indictments should serve as a stern warning to anyone trying to defraud elections in North Carolina,” said Executive Director Kim Westbrook Strach. “Today is a new and better day for elections in our state.”

The State Board will send staff members to Bladen and Robeson counties ahead of the new election in the 9th congressional district to monitor and assist with the elections process. They will meet Monday to set a calendar for a new election.

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