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North Carolina election-fraud investigation centers on operative with criminal history who worked for GOP congressional candidate

Months after the midterms, an election-fraud investigation in North Carolina's 9th District is focusing on an operative who worked for the GOP candidate. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Sarah Hashemi, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post, Photo: Justin Kase Conder/The Washington Post)

DUBLIN, N.C. — In a low-slung, aging commercial strip across the street from an online-gaming parlor here, a local operative named Leslie McCrae Dowless ran his command center for Republican Mark Harris in the 9th Congressional District primary this spring.

Dowless sat at a desk at the back of one of the strip’s vacant storefronts, where he oversaw a crew of workers who collected absentee ballots from voters and updated the Harris campaign on the numbers, according to Jeff Smith, who is the building’s owner and a former Dowless friend.

Smith provided his account about the primary campaign to state investigators, who are examining whether Dowless’s activities then and in the general election violated North Carolina’s election laws, which allow only individual voters or designated close relatives to mail a ballot.

Dowless is now at the center of a burgeoning fraud investigation that has delayed the certification of Harris’s narrow victory and could prompt officials to call for a new election between him and Democrat Dan McCready, who are separated by 905 votes, according to unofficial returns.

Dowless, who has denied any wrongdoing to the Charlotte Observer, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The possibility that November’s vote will be tossed out has prompted an eruption of partisan accusations. The case is politically fraught for Republicans, who in North Carolina and across the country have pushed for voter-identification laws and other restrictions while warning without evidence about the threat of rampant voter fraud, particularly by immigrants in the country illegally.

Now, amid Democratic calls for investigations of a different kind of election fraud — one that allegedly benefited the GOP — Republicans have stayed largely silent about the allegations, instead accusing the state elections board of trying to steal the race.

On Monday, the board issued a subpoena to the Harris campaign, according to campaign attorney John Branch. The board is expected to issue one soon to Red Dome Group, a GOP consulting firm based in the suburbs of Charlotte that hired Dowless, according to two people familiar with the probe.

The elections board has collected information suggesting that high-level officials in the campaign may have been aware of Dowless’s activities, according to the two people.

In statements to The Washington Post, Branch and Harris’s chief consultant, Andy Yates, confirmed that Dowless was hired by Red Dome to work on the campaign but denied that officials were aware of any illegal activity.

The campaign “at all times believed he was working within the confines of North Carolina law,” Branch said. “The campaign is now aware that the State Board of Elections is conducting an investigation, and media reports have identified Mr. Dowless as part of that investigation. We are awaiting the outcome of that investigation like everybody else.”

Yates said that Harris, a pastor from the suburbs of Charlotte, “was aware of Red Dome’s relationship with Mr. Dowless and believes like I do that Mr. Dowless operated within the bounds of the law.” Yates said Dowless assured him he was not illegally collecting ballots.

Wayne Goodwin, chair of the state Democratic Party, said Monday that the legislature’s newly proposed voter-ID law would do nothing to stop the kind of acts alleged in Bladen County. He said Republicans have repeatedly ignored absentee fraud and, in the face of the new allegations, have “gone silent, both here and nationally.”

Some Republicans have argued that irregularities in the absentee vote in the 9th District were not widespread enough to make a difference in the outcome and have called on the board to certify Harris’s win.

Absent that, “hundreds of thousands of legal voters would be disenfranchised and 750,000 people would be denied representation in Congress,” said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state GOP.

Two officials close to the investigation said it remains unclear how many mail-in absentee ballots were allegedly diverted.

Investigators with the bipartisan state elections board — which last week voted unanimously to delay certifying the race — have identified hundreds of potential witnesses to interview, many of them voters whose absentee ballots were never turned in, according to the people familiar with the probe. That raises the possibility of a weeks-long investigation and an uncertain start date for the next congressman from the 9th District.

Josh Lawson, general counsel for the board, declined to comment on the investigation, saying it was ongoing.

Separately, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman (D) told The Post on Monday that her office in Raleigh and the State Bureau of Investigation are also pursuing criminal investigations related to irregularities in mail-in ballots.

“We are not yet at the point of having connected all of the dots,” Freeman said, adding, “Certainly part of any investigation into these voting irregularities will include who may have knowledge and involvement.”

State elections officials said they have been working with the FBI and the office of Robert Higdon, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina. Higdon’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Harris’s 28-year-old son, John, is an assistant U.S. attorney in Higdon’s office, according to the North Carolina State Bar.

The state elections board’s probe is homing in on irregularities in mail-in balloting in the 9th District general election — most of them in Bladen County, a rural swath about 20 miles south of Fayetteville where the largest employer is a Smithfield Foods pork-processing plant bought by a Chinese conglomerate in 2013.

Unusually high numbers of mail-in ballots were requested in the county — and unusually high numbers of those requested ballots were never returned, according to state records.

A disproportionate number of unreturned ballots had been sent to voters of color, who tend to vote Democratic. Nearly 55 percent of ballots mailed to Native American voters and 36 percent mailed to African American voters were not returned, while the non-return rate among white voters in the district was just 18 percent, according to state records.

In one subsidized apartment complex in Bladenboro, called Village Oak, half a dozen voters interviewed by The Post on Sunday said they were approached this fall by a woman who asked them to hand over their absentee ballots. Two other voters in other parts of the county told The Post similar stories.

“I had it for like four days,” said Datesha Montgomery, 27, who lives in a subsidized complex in Elizabethtown called Twisted Hickory. “And then she showed up and asked could she get my ballot. I still hadn’t filled it out. I stood on the porch and I filled it out. I put two names down and she told me the rest wasn’t important and she would fill it out herself.”

Later, Montgomery said, Democratic activists warned her about rumors of ballot fraud, so she canceled her mail-in ballot and voted in person.

This fall, state election officials were so alarmed by the spike in ballot requests from Bladen County that they sent a flier in October to every voter in the 9th District’s share of the county, warning them not to turn over their ballots to others.

“At one point, Bladen had 12 percent of its voters requesting absentee ballots,” said one official with knowledge of the investigation who requested anonymity because of the ongoing probe. “You know, that’s ridiculously high as a percentage. And so once we saw that, we knew immediately, like, okay, either they just became really enthused about the prospect of voting absentee or we have a massive effort underway.”

State elections board investigators have spoken with witnesses who link Dowless to the irregularities, according to the two people familiar with the probe.

Dowless, 62, who serves as vice chairman of the Bladen Soil and Water Conservation District, has a criminal record. Court records show he was convicted of fraud, perjury and passing a worthless check in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

He first came under scrutiny from the state elections board in 2016, when officials began investigating similar ballot irregularities, leading to a public hearing.

That year, in the 9th District primary election, Dowless was on the campaign payroll of Todd Johnson, a Union County insurance salesman who also won a curious number of the mail-in ballots in Bladen County: 211, compared with four for Harris, who was also a candidate that year, and just one for the incumbent, Rep. Robert Pittenger (R), records show. Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.

The state elections board referred the case to the U.S. attorney, as well as the Wake County prosecutor, who is continuing to investigate, officials said.

Yates, Harris’s consultant, said that Dowless was hired by the campaign this year to contact absentee voters and urge them to vote for Harris on their mail-in ballots.

Before the May primary, Dowless set up his operation inside an empty storefront that Smith said he allowed him to use. With an office next door, Smith said he visited regularly and got a good view of Dowless’s operation.

He said Dowless told him he had a crew of about a dozen workers — many of whom he saw at the office — who moved from one precinct to the next, knocking on voters’ doors and offering them ballot request forms.

Once the absentee ballots were mailed to voters, Dowless used public lists of mail-in ballot recipients and sent his crew to collect them and promise to turn them in, Smith said.

“He would report to the campaign every day, ‘We got 50 today’ or ‘We turned in 60 today,’ ” said Smith, who fell out with Dowless after this year’s primary, when they supported different candidates for sheriff.

Yates, the campaign consultant, confirmed that another contractor for Red Dome gave Dowless electronic lists of voters who had been sent ballots.

The sole purpose, he said, was for Dowless to follow up with those voters to encourage them to cast their ballots for Harris.

“To be clear, I instructed Mr. Dowless on a number of occasions that neither he nor anyone working with him or volunteering with him could collect ballots,” Yates said, adding that if he knew Dowless or his staff were taking ballots, he would have severed ties with the operative.

Smith said that in the primary, Dowless focused on three Bladen County precincts in particular: Bladenboro 1, Bladenboro 2 and Bethel, places that had high numbers of mail-in votes, according to state records.

Smith said he never saw Dowless destroy a ballot.

Yates said that Dowless called him regularly to give him updates on the number of absentee-ballot requests he had collected but that they did not discuss numbers of absentee votes he was delivering for Harris.

In the spring primary, Harris defeated the incumbent, Pittenger, by fewer than 1,000 votes — thanks in part to winning an overwhelming 96 percent of Bladen County’s absentee mail-in ballots.

Smith said it was after the primary that he and Dowless had the falling out. Dowless moved his office after Smith learned that Dowless was helping the reelection campaign of Sheriff James McVicker (R), Smith said.

Smith, 48, who owns an online sweepstakes parlor across the street from his commercial strip in Dublin, was charged with running an illegal gambling operation after McVicker’s office raided the parlor in 2015. He disputes the allegations, saying his business is legal.

Smith said Dowless bragged about his ability to deliver as many as 900 absentee ballots in Bladen County, and Smith said he talked excitedly of expanding his operation beyond Bladen in his work for Harris in the 9th District, which stretches more than 100 miles from Charlotte to the Fayetteville area in the east.

Smith said Dowless also spoke of running the absentee-ballot programs for multiple candidates. Campaign records show that he was paid this year by a failed Charlotte City Council candidate, Pete Givens (R), as well as McVicker.

Smith was in the middle of an interview with The Post on Saturday when an investigator with the State Board of Elections called him. In front of a reporter, he told the investigator the story again, from the beginning.

In the primary and general elections, a large number of returned mail-in ballots came from a single street in Bladenboro, according to state records — Pecan Street, where the Village Oak Apartments, a cluster of public-housing units built around a giant oak tree, are located.

In the spring, 60 ballots for the Republican primary were mailed from that precinct on March 19 — 23 of them to Village Oak. All 23 were returned to the board on the same day — March 26, records show.

Seven residents of Village Oak interviewed Sunday recounted seeing the operation in action. Jeneva Legions, 30, who works at the Family Dollar store down the road, said several women came to her apartment in October right after her absentee ballot had arrived in the mail.

Legions said one of the women urged her to fill out her name, Social Security number and signature. When that woman came back, “she just said, ‘I’ll take it,’ and I gave it to her.” The ballot wasn’t sealed, Legions said. Legions said she does not remember filling out the ballot but would have voted a straight Democratic ticket. State records show that her mail-in ballot was never returned to county elections officials.

Asked why she turned over the ballot, Legions said: “You know, I’m thinking, she’s with, you know, the voting people. So I’m thinking she’s coming by to get my ballot.”

Beverly Tyler, 45, also a resident of Village Oak, said a woman came to her as well, asking for her absentee ballot. Tyler said she remembers seeing a truck parked in front of her door with a Mark Harris logo on it. Tyler, who is unemployed and seeking disability benefits for a back injury, said she turned her ballot over as well. She said she does not remember whom she voted for. Her ballot was turned in to the county, records show.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” she said, to explain why she turned over her ballot. “I thought everything was okay.”

Stacy Holcomb, 57, another resident who is on disability for a knee injury, described much the same — though he said the woman came by twice, first to prompt him to fill out a ballot request form and then, after the ballot had arrived in the mail, to collect it.

“I filled it out and gave it to her,” he said. Holcomb said he recalls sealing the ballot before he handed it over. He said he does not remember whom he voted for. His ballot was turned in.

All of the voters described the woman as young with long, straight blond hair. The woman sometimes stays with her mother in the Village Oak complex, they said.

When The Post knocked on the door of that apartment Sunday, a woman fitting her description came to the door.

“I’ve got nothing to say,” she said, two toddlers visible behind her, before shutting the door.

Alice Crites, Joe Fox and Reuben Fischer-Baum in Washington and Justin Kase Conder in Dublin, Elizabethtown and Bladenboro contributed to this report.