December 20, 2018 / 3:41 AM / 4 months ago

North Carolina political consultant cited in probe of 2016 election: documents

(Reuters) - A North Carolina political consultant at the center of a probe into possible election fraud in a Congressional contest last month appeared to have paid for the collection of absentee ballots in a 2016 contest, which would be a violation of state election laws, according to documents released on Wednesday.

Interviews with voters led to information “strongly suggesting” that Leslie McCrae Dowless paid individuals to solicit absentee request forms and to collect absentee ballots from Bladen County voters in 2016, newly released records from a prior investigation by the state’s election board showed.

Possession of an absentee ballot for delivery to a voter or for return by anyone other than the voter, the voter’s near relative, or the voter’s legal guardian is a felony, investigators wrote.

Dowless is currently a person of interest in a probe of possible absentee ballot fraud in a disputed U.S. congressional election in November, North Carolina’s board of elections said two weeks ago.

Dowless’ attorney, Cynthia Singletary, did not respond to requests for comment by phone and by email from Reuters on Wednesday about the new disclosure.

On Tuesday, Singletary, in a statement posted on Twitter in response to the probe into last month’s disputed congressional election in North Carolina, said her client has not violated state or federal campaign laws.

“Mr. Dowless is a highly respected member of our community who is routinely sought after for his campaign expertise,” she said.

The board has refused to certify Republican Mark Harris as the winner of the Nov. 6 election for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as it investigates possible fraud involving absentee ballots from two rural counties.

If fraud is uncovered, the board could order a new election. Harris edged out Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes, but McCready withdrew his concession on Dec. 6.

The North Carolina State Board of Elections opened an investigation in the fall of 2016 after receiving three complaints of possible fraud involving the handling of absentee ballots, according to the documents released on Wednesday.

One of the documents released on Wednesday was handwritten testimony during the investigation from one of the individuals who worked for Dowless. He wrote that Dowless promised to pay him half of $225 when he turned in 20 absentee ballot request forms and the remaining half when he gave him the 20 signed absentee ballots in 2016.

The ballots were part of the federal and state elections in 2016 that included the presidential race won by Donald Trump.

Two women have told WSOC-TV in North Carolina that Dowless paid them to collect absentee ballots and deliver them to him in 2018.

Lorrin Freeman, the district attorney in Wake County, who is handling the case because the district attorney in Bladen County had cited a conflict of interest, said her office was investigating concerns arising from the 2016 election when her office became aware of new allegations regarding the 2018 elections.

“We certainly hope to bring it to conclusion quickly but it has been one of those things that during the course of the investigation it has continued to grow in scope,” she said to Reuters.

Freeman said as recently as this week that her office began looking into voting irregularities in Columbus County, which neighbors Bladen County. She said her office was not identifying any individuals targeted in its investigation.

    The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Eastern North Carolina in an email to Reuters said it had no comment.

Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee and Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida; Editing by Leslie Adler

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