Nine months before allegations of absentee ballot fraud tainted a congressional race in North Carolina, the state elections board gave officials from the Justice Department’s main office evidence that the political operative at the center of the scandal had used similar tactics in 2016.
On Jan. 31, 2018, the chief of the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, which oversees prosecutions of election crimes, met in Raleigh with state officials and U.S. attorney Robert Higdon, according to an elections board spokesman.
The following day, the state officials sent a public integrity lawyer an eight-page memo describing interviews with two campaign workers who said they were paid during the 2016 election to hand-deliver mail-in ballots to political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless. Under North Carolina law, only voters or their close relatives or guardians may deliver or mail in ballots. The memo also summarized interviews with three Bladen County voters who filed complaints saying those campaign workers had sought their ballots.
The meeting and follow-up email, obtained by The Washington Post under a public records request, are the first public indications that officials with the Justice Department in Washington were made aware of the allegations against Dowless. Dowless has emerged in recent weeks as a key figure in the absentee ballot scandal in Republican Mark Harris’s 2018 congressional bid. State elections officials and some voters have expressed frustration that federal prosecutors with the U.S. attorney’s office in North Carolina did not act more aggressively to pursue earlier complaints against Dowless and potentially stop him from working on campaigns.
Dowless worked for one of Harris’s campaign vendors, and the state elections board has declined to certify his narrow win in the 9th Congressional District amid allegations that ballot tampering may have affected the results. Dowless did not respond to messages seeking comment and has previously declined interview requests.
“I really expected something would be done about this,” said Linda Johnson-Baldwin, a retired principal and one of the three voters who filed complaints about absentee ballot collection in 2016. Told her complaint was shared with the Justice Department, she added, “I didn’t even know it went that far. So was anything done about it?”
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment. An FBI spokeswoman in Raleigh did not return phone calls. A spokesman for Higdon also declined to comment.
The other two voters who filed complaints, Brenda Register and Heather Register, who are not related, also said they never heard from federal law enforcement after giving interviews to state elections investigators.
Josh Lawson, general counsel for the state elections board, said he saw little indication that federal prosecutors pursued the Dowless matter. “Meetings did not result in prosecutions or substantial work in the district before the election,” he said.
Other emails obtained by The Post shed additional light on state elections officials’ entreaties to federal prosecutors and the FBI.
After the primary in May of last year, elections officials provided the FBI with records that they said suggested “new efforts by ‘MD,’ ” an apparent reference to Dowless. That communication was referenced in a reminder email Joan Fleming, a state elections investigator, sent to an FBI agent on Oct. 3, a month before the midterm election.
“For this election, Bladen County’s ABS requests are off the charts,” Fleming wrote to FBI agent Julia Hanish, using shorthand for absentee ballots.
The email address misspelled Hanish’s name, using two N’s, and it was unclear whether the email was received. An email sent to that address seeking comment bounced back.
After the November election, reports that unusually high numbers of mail-in ballots were requested in the county but not returned fueled questions about the integrity of the congressional election. State elections investigators have spoken with witnesses who link Dowless to the irregularities, people familiar with the probe have said.
Harris has denied knowledge of any wrongdoing by Dowless during the campaign.
The Jan. 31 meeting in Raleigh included a broad discussion of campaign practices in North Carolina, including the 2016 allegations in Bladen County, state elections board spokesman Pat Gannon said. The elections board had initially referred those allegations to the U.S. attorney’s office a year earlier, warning that those activities “if not addressed will likely continue for future elections.”
The email sent the following day included a transcript of Dowless’s testimony at an elections board hearing in December 2016. Dowless acknowledged that his campaign workers collected absentee ballots in violation of state law but said that he had not told them to do so and that he later ordered them to return the ballots.
On Feb. 28, 2018, state elections officials met again with federal law enforcement authorities to discuss suspicious campaign activities in Bladen County, Gannon confirmed. Hanish and two prosecutors from Higdon’s office attended the meeting.
Marshall Tutor, a state elections board investigator who worked with Fleming on probing election irregularities, said he thought the case referred to prosecutors was strong.
“You dig and dig and dig, and then nothing comes of it, which is quite frustrating,” Tutor said in an interview. He retired in March.