N. Carolina ballot probe defendant now faces federal charges

Politics

FILE – In this Dec. 5, 2018, file photo, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. poses for a portrait outside of his home in Bladenboro, N.C. Dowless, a political operative already accused in state court of absentee ballot fraud during a 2018 North Carolina congressional election, now faces federal charges of fraudulently receiving Social Security benefits while getting paid for political work, prosecutors said Tuesday, April 21, 2020. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The political operative already accused in state court of absentee ballot fraud during a 2018 North Carolina congressional election now faces federal charges of fraudulently receiving Social Security benefits while getting paid for political work, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., 64, of Bladen County, was indicted April 7 by a federal grand jury on four counts and faces a first court appearance on May 11 in Wilmington, according to court documents.

The indictment, unsealed this week, accuses Dowless of concealing from the Social Security Administration over $100,000 he was paid for work performed for at least two candidates during the 2018 election. This alleged deception resulted in Dowless receiving more than $14,000 in disability and supplemental benefits above what he was actually entitled, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh announced. Dowless was approved to receive supplemental benefits based on a disabling condition in 2013, the indictment said.

Dowless has been at the center of a state elections and criminal investigation probe into illegal ballot “harvesting” in the 9th Congressional District campaign. Dowless and others were indictedin state court in 2019. The 2018 congressional election was ultimately rerun last September.

The federal indictment doesn’t name the two candidates whom Dowless worked with during the 2018 midterms. Evidence presented to state officials showed he worked for Republican candidate Mark Harris. Witnesses told state officials that Dowless gathered hundreds of absentee ballots from Bladen County voters with the help of his assistants.

Dowless’ workers testified that they were directed to collect blank or incomplete ballots, forge signatures on them and even fill in votes for local candidates. Harris appeared to get the most votes in the November 2018 race, but the State Board of Elections ordered a new election. Harris didn’t run in the subsequent race, which was won by his successor as the GOP nominee, Dan Bishop.

Cynthia Singletary, a lawyer who has represented Dowless in the state criminal matters, didn’t immediately respond on Tuesday to a phone message or email seeking comment.

The state case against Dowless, who also faces felony counts of illegally collecting ballots during the 2018 primary election and the 2016 elections, had been scheduled to go to state court this month, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said in a phone interview. But COVID-19 directives led to court delays throughout the state.

Freeman said the case is now expected to return to court in June or July, and any trial held wouldn’t likely begin until October or January.

The federal indictment accuses Dowless of two counts of Social Security fraud and one count each of making false statements and theft of government property. The theft count is punishable by up to to ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The other three each come with maximum penalties of five years in prison and $250,000 fines, U.S. Attorney Bobby Higdon’s office said in a release.

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