Man at center of District 9 illegal ballot harvesting operation released on bond

WAKE COUNTY, N.C. — The man accused of being at the center of the District 9 election fraud scandal is now free on bond.

Leslie McCrae Dowless is facing obstruction of justice, conspiracy, and possession of an absentee ballot charges.

Dowless was known in his rural North Carolina community as a politically obsessed man who over nearly a decade delivered votes for his candidates and stayed just out of reach of laws protecting ballots from potential tampering.

But less than two years after landing his best-paying client in Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris, Dowless was booked Wednesday on charges of illegal ballot handling and conspiracy in the 2018 Republican primary and in the 2016 elections. He and four people who'd worked for him were also charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice.

[SPECIAL SECTION: District 9 Investigation]

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Wednesday that Dowless was arrested after the grand jury indictments following "presentation of evidence gathered during the investigation into absentee ballot irregularities in Bladen County during the 2016 general election and the 2018 primary election."

Dowless is expected to make his first court appearance Monday and has been ordered to have no contacts with anyone named in the indictments.

“Hopefully this is a step in helping people feel like they can trust the outcomes of elections again in that area of the state,” Freeman said.

The office of Dowless' attorney told Channel 9 they have no comment.

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An order has set pretrial release conditions for Dowless at $30,000 secured and ordered that he have no contact with anyone named in the indictments.

Dowless faces charges of three counts of felonious obstruction of justice, two counts of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and two counts of possession of absentee ballot.

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According to testimony and other findings detailed at an election board hearing last week, Dowless conducted an illegal “ballot harvesting” operation. He and his assistants are accused of gathering up absentee ballots from voters by offering to put them in the mail.

State law makes it illegal for anyone other than the voter or a close relative to handle a mail-in ballot.

[RELATED: New election ordered in 9th district after Harris calls for new race]

Also charged were people Dowless allegedly paid in 2016 to collect ballots.

We first updated WSOCTV news app users with a notification just after noon on Wednesday that McCrae Dowless had been arrested. Download the WSOCTV news app for your smartphone and get updates on this developing story as they come in.

The District Attorney’s Office said they charged Caitlyn Croom, Matthew Mathis, Tonia Gordon and Rebecca Thompson. Each faces one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice and one count of possession of absentee ballot.

Mathis also faces charges of falsely signing the voter certification on an absentee ballot.

Officials with the District Attorney’s Office said the investigation, including irregularities discovered during the 2018 general election, is ongoing.

“There is still a lot of work to be done,” Freeman said. “We felt this was an important first step in bringing this case to the court system and then making a statement that this case is serious.”

Dowless was working on behalf of Republican candidate Mark Harris, who had a slim lead in last November’s vote count before a new election was ordered.

[TIMELINE: US House District 9 race investigation: How we got here]

Dowless was arrested less than a week after the state elections board decided his work on behalf of Harris, starting with the 2018 primary, tainted the GOP candidate's apparent victory in November. The board ordered a new election but hasn't set a date.

Harris is not running in the new election, but his Democratic opponent from November, Dan McCready, is.

The charges came a year after state elections investigators published a report detailing that Dowless paid cash-starved rural neighbors to bring him voters' ballots in the 2016 elections. By that time, Harris had already recruited and paid Dowless a retainer to replicate the magic formula that resulted in one of Harris' Republican rivals scoring an incredible 98 percent of the mail-in ballots in the 2016 primary.

Harris funneled about $115,000 to Dowless through campaign consulting firm Red Dome, which never evaluated the Bladen County man's methods or performance and never asked for expense receipts. Some of that was used to pay workers to put up and take down Harris campaign signs on top of the door-to-door absentee ballot campaign.

But the amount still shocked Dowless' ex-wife and roommate for part of last year, Sandra Dowless said at a special elections board hearing into the ballot-fraud allegations last week.

"He didn't ever have any money," she said of the man perpetually holding a cigarette in one hand and cellphone in the other.

According to a release, the Wake County district attorney has met with investigators of the North Carolina State Board of Elections and anticipates that the investigation completed by the State Board of Elections will be forwarded to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation within the next 30 days, when it will be reviewed to determine what additional investigative work is necessary.

The cases have been set on an administrative calendar for Monday, March 25, in Wake County Superior Court.

“I think I cannot state enough, this is very much a live, ongoing investigation,” Freeman said.

The North Carolina State Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Westbrook Strach issued a statement following news of Dowless' arrest, saying "These indictments should serve as a warning to anyone trying to defraud elections in North Carolina."

The board will meet on Monday to set a calendar for the new election.

The indictment represents the first charges in a scandal that has cast doubt on election integrity and will leave a congressional seat unfilled for months.

The crimes "served to undermine the integrity of the absentee ballot process and the public's confidence in the outcome of the electoral process," the indictment said.

Harris has not been charged with a crime and has denied knowledge of any illegal practices by those involved with his campaign. But he, too, could come under scrutiny. During last week's board hearing, he admitted writing personal checks to Dowless in 2017, a potential violation if the payments weren't reported.

Dowless has denied any wrongdoing and did not respond to phone and text messages Wednesday. A woman hung up on a call to Dowless' attorney. Dowless refused to testify before the elections board without immunity from prosecution.

Harris paid Dowless despite repeated warnings from the candidate's son, now an assistant federal prosecutor in Raleigh, that the operative was likely resorting to illegal methods to get his results. In fact, Dowless had been on the radar of state elections investigators since 2010, when he was suspected - but never charged - with being among a group buying votes.

That was one of at least a half-dozen instances over the last nine years that prosecutors and elections officials received complaints of serious elections irregularities in Bladen County.

Dowless is a "needy person" who called daily to talk about the Harris campaign, Red Dome founder Andy Yates testified last week. "Politics was his thing. He didn't have anything else going on."

Sandra Dowless said last week she overheard a phone conversation before November's election in which her ex-husband told Harris he was performing strongly. Since no votes had yet been counted, Harris asked him how he knew, she said.

"I know the people and I know how they vote," Sandra Dowless recounted him saying.

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