North Carolina political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless has been indicted on seven felonies in what is likely to be one of the most sweeping criminal investigations ever of fraud in a federal election. (Travis Long/News & Observer via AP)

The political operative at the center of allegations of ballot-tampering in a congressional race in North Carolina has been indicted on seven felonies, the start of what is expected to grow into one of the most sweeping criminal investigations ever of fraud in a federal election.

Leslie McCrae Dowless, who worked for Mark Harris, the Republican nominee in the state’s 9th Congressional District last year, was arrested and charged with three counts of obstruction of justice, two counts of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and two counts of possession of absentee ballots, according to the Wake County district attorney’s office in Raleigh.

The charges reflect a swift transition to the criminal phase of an investigation of mail-in ballot irregularities in the 9th District, following hearings last week before the State Board of Elections.

The board voted unanimously to throw out the November results between Harris and Democrat Dan McCready after hearing voluminous evidence that Dowless had led a scheme to tamper with absentee ballots.

Harris, an evangelical minister from Charlotte, had led by 905 votes in unofficial results from November. Citing ill health, he announced Tuesday that he would not run in the new election, which has not been scheduled yet.

Dowless, 63, is charged with orchestrating a scheme to illegally collect, fill in, forge and submit mail-in ballots from voters in two rural North Carolina counties. State election officials heard hours of testimony last week from witnesses who described the alleged scheme in detail.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman’s decision to seek indictments almost immediately after the close of those hearings sent a “clear signal,” she said, “that we take seriously the public’s confidence in the electoral process and that we intend to pursue this case vigorously and see that justice is done.”

More charges are likely, Freeman said. She said her office’s “very large-scope” investigation will examine “who was aware of and helped finance these fraudulent absentee ballot activities” — a sign of potential legal peril for Harris, who hired Dowless. She also plans to determine whether anyone else besides Dowless allegedly tried to obstruct either the criminal or state board investigations.

Dowless’s lawyer, Cynthia Singletary, had no comment, according to a woman who answered the phone at her law office.

Freeman said the obstruction charges stem from Dowless’s alleged participation in the ballot scheme itself but also from evidence that he attempted to interfere with witnesses.

Harris has claimed no knowledge of Dowless’s methods and said there were no red flags before he hired him in 2017. However, he was contradicted during last week’s hearings by his son John, an assistant U.S. attorney who testified that he warned his father in conversations and emails in 2017 against hiring Dowless because he suspected the operative had used illegal tactics to win votes in a previous election.

During testimony the next day, Mark Harris claimed not to recollect a conversation with another son just two days earlier in which he said he did not think his emails with John would become public during the hearings.

Facing potential perjury charges for that testimony — and days of potentially damaging cross-examination about his role in the ballot scheme — Harris abruptly called for a new election. He said ballot fraud had sufficiently tainted the outcome in November to warrant a new election.

Also at least week’s hearings, the elections board’s general counsel, Josh Lawson, rebuked Harris’s lawyers for failing to turn over those emails between Harris and his son John in a timely fashion, as required by a board subpoena for all campaign communications related to Dowless.

Evidence also surfaced during the hearings that Harris structured his campaign so that it did not directly pay Dowless, avoiding public disclosure of the payments and potentially shielding Harris from accusations that he was aware of the scheme.

Freeman would not say whether any of that evidence could lead to an obstruction charge against Harris, but she said “that is still very much a matter of investigation.”

She added, “This is an investigation that has grown in scope and continues to grow in scope.”

She also would not say whether a perjury charge against Harris is possible. Such charges are unusual in North Carolina, especially when a witness corrects his testimony, as Harris did on Feb. 21.

Election experts said they were unaware of fraud investigations as sweeping as the one playing out in North Carolina, noting that its impact on a federal election most certainly elevated its significance both for election officials and prosecutors.

It might have been the first recorded instance of a federal election being thrown out over fraud.

“It’s been quite a while since we’ve had allegations like this,” said Michael McDonald, who leads the United States Elections Project at the University of Florida. “I mean, you have to go back — well, actually I’m drawing a blank. You could go to some local elections. Not at the federal level.”

McDonald guessed that Freeman’s swift action was intended to send a signal ahead of the special election in the 9th District, to discourage further fraud and to give voters in the district confidence in the system’s integrity. The district runs along the South Carolina line from Charlotte to rural eastern North Carolina.

Kim Westbrook Strach, the executive director of the state elections board, praised Freeman on Wednesday for seeking charges so quickly and declared: “Today is a new and better day for elections in our state.”

Although Freeman moved just days after the close of the state board’s hearings, the allegations of ballot-tampering have been swirling in Bladen and Robeson counties for years.

Election officials first alerted state and federal prosecutors in early 2017 of their suspicions that Dowless was running a ballot-collection scheme. Because of Dowless’s ties to the local Republican Party, the local Bladen County prosecutor recused himself from investigating, pushing the case to Freeman, who is based in Raleigh.

Robert Higdon Jr., the federal prosecutor for eastern North Carolina, does not appear to be investigating the 9th District case. Higdon has instead prosecuted cases of noncitizen voting, producing minimal penalties. President Trump and other Republicans have portrayed noncitizen voting as a widespread phenomenon, although there is little evidence to support their claim.

The indictment of Dowless names an alleged co-conspirator, Kelly N. Hendrix, who has not been charged. It also describes three voters whose ballots were illegally tampered with. Four other individuals were also indicted as part of the same investigation, Freeman said Wednesday.

Hendrix, who testified last week that she illegally collected and signed ballots for Dowless, wept on the witness stand as she described how she started helping him after he had given her rides to her job at a Hardee’s fast-food restaurant. Dowless occasionally gave her gas money while she helped him collect ballots, she said.

Her testimony vividly displayed the pervasive economic hardship of eastern North Carolina, which was devastated by Hurricane Florence weeks before the November election — and where many of Dowless’s associates were drawn to him because he was kind to people in need. He is a native of the area.

Freeman said whether those who participated in the ballot scheme cooperate with investigators will be factored in her office’s decisions to prosecute. She said her paramount concern is “trying to restore public confidence in that area of the state in the election process.”

Wednesday’s charges relate to the 2016 general election and 2018 primary, according to the indictment. But Freeman said she will also examine evidence of election fraud in the 2018 general election — the focus of the hearings by the State Board of Elections last week.

“We have not yet begun our investigation into the 2018 election, knowing that the state board was doing a thorough investigation and fully anticipating that we would gain access to that,” she said. “We have met with the state board to begin gaining access to that. We expect that to take several months.”

Dowless was charged with low-level felonies, which under North Carolina statutes are punishable with sentences ranging from six months to two years, depending on prior records, Freeman said. Court records show he was convicted of fraud, perjury and passing a worthless check in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The case has been scheduled for a late March court appearance. Dowless was held on $30,000 bond and ordered to have no contact with anyone named in the indictment.