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FBI investigators scrutinized N.C. political operative in May, but took no public action to stop alleged election fraud

Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. outside of his home in Bladenboro, N.C., in December. Dowless is accused of orchestrating a ballot-fraud scheme in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District. (Travis Long/AP)

The FBI participated in a May surveillance operation of a GOP political operative at the center of an election fraud investigation in North Carolina, newly released court documents show, raising fresh questions about how long it has taken federal prosecutors to pursue the matter.

Federal and state investigators observed Leslie McCrae Dowless meeting with people he hired to collect ballots ahead of last year’s primary election in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, according to state search warrants released Wednesday.

At the time, Dowless was working on behalf of Republican candidate Mark Harris, who went on to beat GOP incumbent Robert Pittenger by 828 votes. Dowless also worked for the Harris campaign in the fall, when Harris narrowly edged out Democrat Dan McCready in the unofficial results.

State officials ordered a new election in the 9th District last month after concluding that Dowless orchestrated a “coordinated, unlawful, and substantially resourced” scheme to collect, fill out, forge and in some cases discard absentee ballots on behalf of Harris.

Separately, the Wake County district attorney’s office in Raleigh last month charged Dowless and four others on felony counts, including possession of absentee ballots and obstruction of justice.

Harris has denied knowledge of the scheme. He said last month he would not run in the special election scheduled for later this year.

State elections officials have said they repeatedly warned federal prosecutors about the ballot irregularities in the 9th District during the past two years, but got little response.

The first public sign of an active Justice Department investigation came this month, when a federal grand jury issued subpoenas in the case.

N.C. election board’s warnings to local and federal prosecutors about alleged election fraud drew little action

Wake County search warrants released Wednesday in response to a request by a coalition of news organizations, including The Washington Post, show that the FBI was investigating Dowless last spring — before both the primary and general elections.

In an interview, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said the FBI suspended its involvement in the probe because of Justice Department guidelines that caution against taking investigative steps close to an election.

The joint FBI and state surveillance took place on May 3, 2018, documents show. The 9th District primary was May 8 and the general election was Nov. 6.

Freeman said she was not aware of the FBI resuming its activity until after the State Board of Elections called for a new election last month.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment. FBI Special Agent James Kaylor, who documents show participated in the surveillance operation, did not respond to a request for comment.

In the surveillance operation described in the search warrants, state and FBI investigators jointly watched Dowless meet with individuals and conduct transactions at a CashPoints automated teller machine at a convenience store in Bladen County, N.C. — the epicenter of the alleged fraud in the 9th District, which stretches east from Charlotte along the South Carolina border. The individuals later told investigators Dowless had offered them money to collect ballots, according to the documents.

Read: Search warrants in North Carolina election fraud investigation

State investigators cited that evidence when they asked a judge in December and January to authorize several search warrants, including one that sought Dowless’s bank records to determine who he was paying and from what source of funding.

Documents show that investigators are also seeking text messages and location data from Dowless’s cellphone and bank records for Patriots for Progress, a political committee affiliated with Dowless that Harris paid when he hired the operative. State election officials said during a hearing last month that payment may have violated campaign finance law.

It remains unknown if the office of U.S. Attorney Robert J. Higdon Jr. of the Eastern District of North Carolina is involved in the case. The federal subpoenas disclosed this week were sought by the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section in Washington.

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Complicating matters is the fact that one of Harris’s sons, John, has been an assistant U.S. attorney in Higdon’s office since the fall — though he did not work there at the time of the surveillance in May.

Last month, John Harris testified at a state elections board hearing that he had warned his father that he believed Dowless employed illegal tactics to collect absentee ballots. Three individuals with knowledge of the investigation said John Harris could be called as a witness in the federal case.

Also Wednesday, the State Board of Elections published its official order for a new election in the 9th District — including a description of all the evidence the board considered in concluding that fraud had tainted the result last year.

North Carolina elections board details evidence of fraud in official order for new election

Among the findings was expert analysis from two college professors who found that the proportion of absentee ballots requested but not returned was anomalously high in Bladen and Robeson, the two counties where Dowless worked. The analysis suggests that in addition to allegedly orchestrating the collection, filling out and forging of ballots in the 9th District, Dowless may also have been responsible for discarding ballots.

The board also found, contrary to claims by Republicans, that the number of absentee ballots affected by Dowless’s operation exceeded the 905-vote margin between Harris and McCready.

And the board rebuked the Harris campaign for failing to comply with a subpoena for all communications related to Dowless and absentee ballots — and promised further action. “This board cannot allow parties or their counsel to behave in this manner,” the order states.

An attorney for Harris declined to comment. An attorney for the Harris campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The board could pursue an additional hearing on the lawyers’ conduct or a complaint with the state bar.

“I think the board is signaling that it took this investigation seriously,” said the board’s general counsel, Josh Lawson. “They’re trying to emphasize the absolute necessity for strong laws but also a system to enforce those laws. This is what an investigation into fraud should look like.”

Kirk Ross in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.