Political Operative At Center Of Tainted North Carolina Election Charged

North Carolina prosecutors have announced that Leslie McCrae Dowless, the political operative accused of illegally collecting absentee ballots in that state's 9th Congressional District, has been indicted on charges of obstruction of justice and possessing absentee ballots.

North Carolina election officials voted unanimously last week to order a new election in the race after four days of testimony laid out how Dowless and his associates collected absentee ballots on behalf of Republican candidate Mark Harris, a felony under state law.

After Election Day, Harris held a 905-vote lead over Democrat Dan McCready in the unofficial ballot tally. But state officials, who had already been monitoring Dowless' activities since at least 2016, refused to certify the results and opened an investigation.

During hearings before the State Board of Elections last week, one of Dowless' associates, Lisa Britt, described how Dowless tried to interfere with the state's investigation, saying that he told her and others "as long as we all stick together, we'll all be fine because they don't have anything on us."

Britt described how Dowless called her over to his house before the hearings and handed her a letter he wanted her to read at the hearing.

"I can tell you that I haven't done anything wrong in the election and McCrae Dowless has never told me to do anything wrong, and to my knowledge he has never done anything wrong," the note read. "But I am taking the 5th Amendment because I don't have an attorney and I feel like you will try to trip me up."

Britt said she was paid by Dowless to register people to vote and to collect ballots. She described how Dowless gave her specific instructions for returning ballots so as not to "raise red flags" with election officials: using post offices close to the voters and never mailing more than nine or 10 ballot envelopes at a time.

She said she had "no idea" how many ballots she picked up in total.

Dowless was called to the witness stand at the hearings but was not compelled to testify because under state law, he would have been granted immunity from future prosecution.

Harris announced Tuesday that he would not run in the new election. In testimony before the State Board of Elections last week, he denied that he was aware of any illegal acts on behalf of his campaign. But Harris' claims were undermined by testimony from his son John, who said he warned his father about Dowless' tactics.

According to the Wake County District Attorney's office, Dowless faces three counts of felonious obstruction of justice, two counts of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and two counts of possession of absentee ballots. Four other individuals associated with Dowless are also named in the indictment.

Dowless was arrested on Wednesday morning. Bond was set at $30,000 and Dowless was ordered not to have any contact with anyone named in the indictments.

The others charged are Caitlyn E. Croom, Matthew Monroe Mathis, Tonia Gordon and Rebecca Thompson. The district attorney's office says each faces one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice and one count of possession of absentee ballot. Mathis is also charged with falsely signing the voter certification on an absentee ballot.

In a statement, Kim Strach, the executive director of the State Board of Elections, said the indictments "should serve as a stern warning to anyone trying to defraud elections in North Carolina."

NPR's Miles Parks and WUNC's Rusty Jacobs contributed reporting to this story.

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