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McCrae Dowless, central figure in 9th District election probe, indicted

Posted February 27, 2019 11:53 a.m. EST
Updated February 27, 2019 8:15 p.m. EST

— McCrae Dowless, the Bladen County political operative who emerged as a central figure in the investigation into irregularities in the 9th Congressional District election last fall, was arrested Wednesday on a series of felonies primarily related to his handling of absentee ballots in the 2016 general election and the 2018 primary.

Dowless was charged with three counts of felonious obstruction of justice, two counts of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and two counts of illegal possession of an absentee ballot.

Four others – Caitlyn Croom, Matthew Mathis, Tonia Gordon and Rebecca Thompson – face charges of conspiracy to obstruct justice and one count of possession of an absentee ballot, according to indictments. Mathis also was charged with two counts of falsely certifying an absentee ballot.

Agents with the State Bureau of Investigation took Dowless into custody without incident in Bladenboro.

"There is still very much a live, ongoing investigation," Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said, noting more charges might be brought against Dowless and his co-defendants or new charges filed against others.

Freeman has led the investigation into absentee ballot irregularities since last year, when Bladen County's district attorney recused himself from the case forwarded by state elections investigators. Freeman said Wednesday that her investigation could expand into the 2018 general election after her review of the findings of a separate investigation by the State Board of Elections.

A woman who answered the phone at the office of Dowless' lawyer, Cynthia Adams Singletary, said she wasn't available and had no comment on the arrest before hanging up.

The charges come just a week after the State Board of Elections voted to hold a new election in the 9th District after hearing testimony that Dowless' employees took possession of absentee ballots in the 2018 general election. It's a felony in North Carolina to take someone else's ballot, although giving someone your ballot isn't illegal.

Republican Mark Harris, who hired Dowless for get-out-the-vote operations in Bladen and Robeson counties, led Democratic opponent Dan McCready by 905 votes in that race, according to unofficial results. But the elections board refused to certify those results pending an investigation into allegations of absentee ballot fraud.

Dowless refused to testify at the the board's hearing last week. But some of his employees did, admitting under oath that he paid them to collect ballots.

Lisa Britt, who signed dozens of absentee ballots as a witness in 2018, also told elections officials that Dowless' workers sometimes completed unfinished absentee ballots and that he was aware that she forged her mother's signature as a witness on some ballots. Britt also said that Dowless had given her a note telling her what to say at the hearing.

Harris took the stand Thursday to himself call for a new election, telling board members that he had seen enough evidence during the four previous days of testimony to call into question the integrity of the November 2018 contest.

The board is scheduled to meet next Monday to set a date for the new election.

"These indictments should serve as a stern warning to anyone trying to defraud elections in North Carolina,” Kim Strach, executive director of the state elections board, said in a statement. "Today is a new and better day for elections in our state."

Dan McCready, the Democrat who appeared to have lost to Harris last fall, tweeted that the indictments send a clear message to people involved in election fraud.

"If you cheat, if you attack our democracy, if you silence voices, if you steal votes, you will face the full force of justice," McCready tweeted.

The indictments unsealed Wednesday are largely concerned with the activities of Dowless – and the people he allegedly paid to operate in Bladen and Robeson counties – in the 2016 general election and the 2018 primary.

"We felt it was important not to interfere with the State Board of Elections process, to allow the decision of whether there should be a new election to be independent of any influence of what was happening in the criminal case," Freeman said.

The indictments were returned under seal, she said, because of evidence from the state hearing regarding possible witness tampering and because investigators had been told that Dowless might be armed.

The indictments accuse Dowless of taking at least eight ballots from people in 2016, as well as at least three ballots in 2018.

In October 2016, the indictment says, he gave investigators false information and coached Mathis and Croom to do the same.

Mathis and Croom had already been named in a January 2018 investigation summary from the State Board of Elections. They told elections investigators that Dowless paid them to collect ballots from voters in Bladen County.

But Details on Mathis' and Croom's activities actually emerged shortly after the 2016 general election, when Dowless filed a complaint heard by the State Board of Elections alleging irregularities by a Democratic group, the Bladen County Improvement Association. Included in that complaint, prepared by lawyers for ousted Gov. Pat McCrory, were details of Mathis' and Croom's own involvement in Dowless' ballot scheme – evidence that featured prominently in the January 2018 report from state elections investigators.

Freeman said that, in addition to looking at any illegal actions taken, her investigation is reviewing how the activity was financed.

"This is a step toward trying to restore confidence in the voting process, which is so critical to our democracy," she said.

The indictments name 17 Bladen County voters whose ballots were taken in the 2016 general election or the 2018 primary. On two other ballots from the 2018 general election, the indictment says, Mathis falsely signed the forms using the voters’ names.

At least four voters named in the indictments whose ballots were taken by Dowless or his accused associate Gordon in the 2016 general election also submitted counted absentee ballots in the 2018 general election. Three of those 2018 ballots – all counted – were witnessed by people connected with Dowless, according to a WRAL News analysis of absentee ballot envelopes.

A Wake County judge set Dowless' secured bond at $30,000 and ordered him to have no contact with anyone named in the indictments.