FILE - In this Dec. 5, 2018, file photo, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., poses for a portrait outside his home in Bladenboro, N.C. State investigators have described Dowless as a “person of interest” in their probe into 2018 voting irregularities involving absentee ballots. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, File)

North Carolina officials sought to charge ballot operative

December 19, 2018 - 2:09 pm

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina officials sought criminal charges after the 2016 election against the man now at the center of absentee ballot fraud allegations, but prosecutors didn't indict him before the now disputed 2018 congressional race, according to documents released Wednesday.

The documents detail a two year investigation by the North Carolina State Board of Elections into Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. Elections officials have described the 62-year-old convicted felon from rural Bladen County whom as a "person of interest" in their ongoing investigation into irregularities in the Nov. 6 vote in the state's 9th Congressional District.

In a January 2018 memo referring Dowless and others for criminal charges, state elections investigators detailed interviews in which people who had worked for Dowless in 2016 election cycle described collecting absentee ballots from voters and giving them to Dowless. Because of the potential for mischief, it is against the law in North Carolina for anyone other than a voter or immediate family member to handle someone's absentee ballot before it is sealed and mailed.

Investigators also alleged Dowless attempted to interfere with their investigation by calling witnesses and warning them before they could be interviewed.

The referral to state and federal prosecutors came months before a May GOP primary and November general election in which Republican Mark Harris eked out narrow victories.

Harris now leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes, according to unofficial results. The state elections board has refused to certify the tally, and leaders in both parties now concede a do-over election might eventually be needed.

Still, the head of the state Republican Party insists Harris should be sworn in with the new Congress next month unless authorities can show evidence that voting irregularities would have changed the outcome of the election. The state elections board has scheduled a Jan. 11 public hearing to review the evidence.

Investigators are looking into whether Dowless and others working on the GOP candidate's behalf ran an illegal operation to collect large numbers of absentee ballots from voters in at least two counties.

Dowless didn't immediately respond Wednesday to a voicemail or text message seeking comment. His lawyer, Cynthia Adams Singletary, said in a statement issued Tuesday that any speculation regarding her client and the 9th District election is premature and unwarranted.

Harris, the Republican candidate, said in an interview last week that it was his decision to hire Dowless, though he denied knowledge of any potential wrongdoing.

The extent of the state's prior investigation into Dowless' tactics had not previously been publicly known.

In their January memo, investigators for the state board wrote that they had uncovered evidence that Dowless employed workers to encourage people to ask for absentee ballots and then collect them, as well as push for certain candidates.

Three voters registered formal complaints with county elections officials saying that people subsequently identified as working for Dowless had come to their houses to encourage them to request absentee ballots.

One woman, Linda Baldwin, said a man told her he was paid to collect absentee ballot request forms and "that when the ballots arrived by mail at her house, and she completed them, he would return to pick them up to take and show his "boss" so that he could get paid," according to the document.

A second person, Brenda Register, said a young woman came to her house and tried to convince her to request an absentee ballot, but she declined and reported it to elections officials. A third person who complained, Heather Register, said the same man and woman told her they were getting paid to encourage people to request ballots, though she and relatives never received or voted those ballots.

Yet, the state board investigator writes: "When Heather Register attempted to vote in person on Election Day, she was informed that she had 'already voted.'"

The board's investigators write that the man and woman, Matthew Matthis and Caitlyn Croom, acknowledged when confronted by investigators that they had worked for Dowless: "They advised that when they were hired, Dowless told them that he would only pay ½ of what they earned when they brought the absentee ballot request forms to him, and would not pay the remainder until after they collected and provided Dowless with the voter's ballots as proof that the person had voted."

A phone listing for Croom in Elizabethtown rang unanswered Wednesday, and an email address listed in public records search bounced back a reporter's email. Matthis didn't immediately respond to a message left with a relative.

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Associated Press investigative reporter Michael Biesecker reported from Washington. AP reporter Michael Kunzelman contributed from College Park, Maryland.

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Follow Biesecker at http://twitter.com/mbieseck and AP reporter Gary D. Robertson at http://twitter.com/garydrobertson