Feds issue subpoenas in 9th District election probe

Published 8:01 pm Tuesday, March 12, 2019

By Emery P. Dalesio

Associated Press

RALEIGH — Federal prosecutors investigating potential election crimes have demanded documents for a grand jury reviewing the 9th District congressional race that’s being rerun after last year’s contest was deemed tainted.

The state elections board on Tuesday provided a grand jury subpoena issued last week showing the U.S. Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section in Washington is conducting a criminal investigation. The subpoena demands “all documents related to the investigation of election irregularities affecting counties within the 9th Congressional District.”

Republican candidate Mark Harris and his campaign also received subpoenas for documents, his personal attorney, David Freedman, said Tuesday.

The scandal represents a rare case of a federal election redone because of fraud.

“We hope that prosecutions in these cases will help restore voters’ confidence in our elections and serve as a strong deterrent to future elections fraud,” state Elections Director Kim Westbrook Strach said in a statement Tuesday.

The elections board heard evidence last month that a political operative working for Harris in rural Bladen County collected mail-in ballots, making votes vulnerable to being changed or discarded. The elections board ordered a new contest for the district, which includes part of Charlotte and extends eastward along the South Carolina line.

Harris isn’t running in the new race that opened Monday with candidate filing that continues through Friday. Democrat Dan McCready is running again after what appeared to be a narrow loss in November’s election. He filed candidacy papers Tuesday. Party primaries are scheduled for May 14, with the general election in September.

Harris’ former political operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., also received a grand jury subpoena, WBTV in Charlotte reported. Dowless and his attorney didn’t respond to messages from The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Dowless and four people he allegedly hired to collect ballots were charged in state court last month on felony charges, including possessing absentee ballots related to their work in the 2016 primary and general elections and last year’s GOP primary. The district attorney prosecuting the case said she also is investigating potential crimes leading up to the 2018 general election.

Dowless’ state charges involve a similar ballot-collection scheme that the elections board uncovered in late 2016. The board notified the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Since then, federal prosecutors based in Raleigh have given no public indication they did anything about warnings from Strach that her office found “that individuals and potentially groups of individuals engaged in efforts to manipulate election results through the absentee ballot process.”

“The evidence we have obtained suggest that these efforts may have taken place in the past and if not addressed will likely continue for future elections,” Strach wrote to the acting U.S. attorney in January 2017.

Spokesmen for the Justice Department in Washington and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh refused to explain why the agency’s Public Integrity Section has taken on the 9th District case. The section is responsible for combating corruption by public officials and supervises the investigation and prosecution of election crimes.

Harris’ son, John, has worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in Raleigh since October. He testified during last month’s state elections board hearing that he warned his father repeatedly not to hire Dowless, telling him Dowless was likely using illegal methods to deliver surprisingly large numbers of absentee votes.

The elections board’s subpoena demands the documents in time for three days of grand jury proceedings starting April 16.