Unsealed warrants show FBI probed 9th District issues before 2018 election

RALEIGH — A Wake County judge unsealed three search warrants Wednesday seeking phone and financial records from the political operative at the center of a criminal election fraud investigation dating to at least 2016.

The warrants show the FBI has been active in the investigation long before 2018, ahead of an election for the 9th Congressional District that was eventually thrown out over allegations of absentee ballot irregularities.

Read the unsealed documents:

The search warrants were initially issued in December and January in the Wake County district attorney's probe of McCrae Dowless, who in late February was charged with three counts of obstruction of justice, two counts of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and two counts of illegal possession of an absentee ballot.

[SPECIAL SECTION: District 9 investigation]

The warrants reveal that in May, the SBI performed surveillance on McCrae Dowless at an ATM in Bladen County. The warrants also reveal the FBI has been involved since at least October.

>> Channel 9 political reporter Joe Bruno, who broke this story, is in Raleigh Wednesday and will have live updates on Eyewitness News.

An agent interviewed Tonia Gordon, who was recently arrested in the District 9 case. They said Gordon told them, "McCrae Dowless gave her several blank state absentee ballot request forms and told her to have several individuals in Bladen County complete the forms."

It said Gordon would then give the completed forms back to Dowless.

Others have also been arrested and charged in Dowless' operation, which prosecutors allege illegally took possession of voters' ballots and, in several cases, forged signatures on the ballots themselves.

Supporting court documents had already revealed, at least in broad strokes, the nature of the search warrants – namely that investigators demanded records from Dowless' cellphone provider and bank accounts at the State Employees' Credit Union and Wells Fargo. But the details themselves were off limits to the public.

The newly unsealed warrants expose more about the depth of the criminal probe into the Bladen County political operative, who for years has worked with Republican candidates – and even some Democrats – for get-out-the-vote efforts that have often drawn the scrutiny of election officials.

In particular, investigators sought text messages and call logs for Dowless' mobile phone number from Jan. 1, 2016, through Jan. 15, 2019, along with location data his device reported to cell towers and GPS. They also demanded voicemails "as far back as this data is kept."

Investigators seized transactions conducted just days before the 2018 primary at two ATMs: one in Bladenboro and another in Elizabethtown. From Wells Fargo, SBI agents seized account and transaction information from accounts associated with Patriots for Progress, Dowless' political action committee.

The search warrants also show state officials have worked actively with the U.S. Department of Justice's Public Integrity Section out of Washington, D.C., on the investigation since at least October 2018. That's when FBI Special Agent James Kaylor accompanied an agent with the State Bureau of Investigation during an interview with Tonia Gordon, one of the Dowless associates charged last month.

WRAL contributed to this report.

Judge expected to release documents in District 9 election probe

A judge is expected to release never-before-seen evidence Wednesday in the District 9 election fraud investigation.

Federal prosecutors investigating potential election crimes have demanded documents for a grand jury reviewing a North Carolina congressional race that's still undecided and being rerun after last year's contest was deemed tainted.

The state elections board on Tuesday provided a grand jury subpoena issued last week showing the U.S. Justice Department's Public Integrity Section in Washington, D.C., is conducting a criminal investigation. The subpoena demands "all documents related to the investigation of election irregularities affecting counties within the 9th Congressional District."

[READ: NCSBE releases official order calling for new District 9 election]

Republican candidate Mark Harris and his campaign also received subpoenas for documents, his personal attorney, David Freedman, said Tuesday.

The scandal represents a rare case of a federal election redone because of fraud.

"We hope that prosecutions in these cases will help restore voters' confidence in our elections and serve as a strong deterrent to future elections fraud," state elections director Kim Westbrook Strach said in a statement Tuesday.

[ALSO READ: Authorities make 5th arrest in alleged District 9 election fraud investigation]

Strach, executive director of the State Board of Elections, released the following statement in response to the federal grand jury subpoena issued to the State Board of Elections:

“We support the efforts of state and federal authorities to investigate and prosecute crimes against the elections process. State Board staff are compiling records responsive to the federal grand jury subpoena and are prepared to assist federal and state prosecutors in their investigations. We hope that prosecutions in these cases will help restore voters’ confidence in our elections and serve as a strong deterrent to future elections fraud.”

The elections board heard evidence last month that a political operative working for Harris in rural Bladen County collected mail-in ballots, making votes vulnerable to being changed or discarded. The elections board ordered a new contest for the district, which includes part of Charlotte and extends eastward along the South Carolina border almost to the Army's Fort Bragg.

Harris isn't running in the new race that opened Monday with candidate filing that continues through Friday. Democrat Dan McCready is running again after what appeared to be a narrow loss in November's election. He filed candidacy papers Tuesday.

Party primaries are scheduled for May 14 with the general election in September.

Harris' former political operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., also received a grand jury subpoena, Channel 9 learned.

Dowless and four people he allegedly hired to collect ballots were charged in state court last month on felony charges, including possessing absentee ballots related to their work in the 2016 primary and general elections and last year's GOP primary. The district attorney prosecuting the case said she also is investigating potential crimes leading up to the 2018 general election.

Dowless' state charges involve a similar ballot-collection scheme that the elections board uncovered in late 2016 and notified the U.S. attorney's office. Since then, federal prosecutors based in Raleigh have given no public indication they did anything about warnings from Strach that her office found "that individuals and potentially groups of individuals engaged in efforts to manipulate election results through the absentee ballot process."

"The evidence we have obtained suggest that these efforts may have taken place in the past and if not addressed will likely continue for future elections," Strach wrote to the acting U.S. attorney in January 2017.

Spokesmen for the Justice Department in Washington and the U.S. attorney's office in Raleigh refused to explain why the agency's Public Integrity Section has taken on the 9th District case. The section is responsible for combating corruption by public officials and supervises the investigation and prosecution of election crimes.

Harris' son, John, has worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in Raleigh since October. He testified during last month's state elections board hearing that he warned his father repeatedly against hiring Dowless, telling him Dowless was likely using illegal methods to deliver surprisingly large numbers of absentee votes.

The elections board's subpoena demands the documents in time for three days of grand jury proceedings starting April 16.

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