‘ Trou­bled his­tory’: Since 2010, Bladen has faced 5 elec­tions in­ves­ti­ga­tions

The Charlotte Observer - - Front Page - BY BRIAN MUR­PHY, CARLI BROSSEAU AND ANNA DOU­GLAS

bmur­[email protected]­clatchydc.com adou­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion into vot­ing ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in the 2018 elec­tion in Bladen County is at least the fifth elec­tions case since 2010 in the ru­ral Eastern North Carolina county.

“Bladen County has a trou­bled his­tory of po­lit­i­cal groups ex­ploit­ing the use of ab­sen­tee bal­lots in an ef­fort to skew sup­port for a spe­cific can­di­date or group of can­di­dates,” wrote Jon David, district at­tor­ney for Bladen, Bruns­wick and Colum­bus coun­ties, in a Jan. 26, 2018, let­ter to the State Bu­reau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion’s in­terim as­sis­tant di­rec­tor.

“These groups pack­age the an­tic­i­pated abil­ity to garner ab­sen­tee bal­lots as a com­mod­ity to be bro­kered.”

Bladen County is at the cen­ter of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into pos­si­ble elec­tion fraud in the 9th Con­gres­sional District elec­tion, which has yet to be cer­ti­fied by North Carolina’s nine-mem­ber State Board of Elec­tions and Ethics En­force­ment.

A 2010 case, in­ves­ti­gated by the State Bu­reau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion and re­ferred to the At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Spe­cial Prose­cu­tions Unit, was closed in 2013 with­out any crim­i­nal charges be­ing filed, David told The (Raleigh) News & Ob­server in an email.

Gov. Roy Cooper was at­tor­ney gen­eral at the time, but the Spe­cial Prose­cu­tions Unit would have de­cided whether to bring charges.

In Novem­ber 2016, the state board opened cases into three dif­fer­ent groups in the county, ac­cord­ing to a let­ter from David to the in­terim as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of the State Bu­reau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion:

Pos­si­ble ab­sen­tee bal­lot fraud com­mit­ted by Pa­tri­ots for Progress IE PAC, a con­ser­va­tive group founded in 2014.

Pos­si­ble ab­sen­tee bal­lot fraud com­mit­ted by the Bladen Im­prove­ment As­so­ci­a­tion PAC, a Demo­crat-backed group.

Voter fraud al­le­ga­tions and pos­si­ble false state­ments to af­fect elec­tion out­comes al­legedly by McCrae Dow­less, who worked as a con­trac­tor for Repub­li­can Mark Har­ris’ 2018 con­gres­sional cam­paign.

The state board has twice de­clined to cer­tify re­sults of North Carolina’s 9th Con­gres­sional District elec­tion, a race ap­par­ently won by Har­ris by 905 votes over Demo­crat Dan McCready. The board has sched­uled a hear­ing later this month to hear ev­i­dence about vot­ing ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties with ab­sen­tee abroad and whose es­sen­tial de­cency set a stan­dard for oth­ers to meet.

“When the his­tory books are writ­ten,” his son, former Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, said in a eu­logy at Wash­ing­ton Na­tional Cathe­dral, “they will say that Ge­orge H.W. Bush was a great pres­i­dent of the United States, a diplo­mat of un­matched skill, a com­man­der-in-chief of for­mi­da­ble ac­com­plish­ment and a gen­tle­man who ex­e­cuted the du­ties of his of­fice with dig­nity and honor.”

Ge­orge W. Bush, like his fa­ther an emo­tional man giv-

bal­lots in Bladen and Robe­son coun­ties. It has also de­clined to cer­tify the county’s sher­iff’s race, a county com­mis­sion­ers race and the race for soil and wa­ter con­ser­va­tion district su­per­vi­sor.

The board has is­sued sub­poe­nas to the Har­ris cam­paign, to the cam­paign of Bladen County Sher­iff Jim McVicker and to Red Dome Group, a con­sult­ing firm that was paid more than $411,000 by Har­ris for cam­paign work, ac­cord­ing to elec­tion board spokesman Pa­trick Gan­non. Red Dome Group founder Andy Yates told The Char­lotte Ob­server that his firm hired Dow­less to work for Har­ris.

Har­ris re­ceived 437 mail-in ab­sen­tee votes in Bladen County in his May Repub­li­can pri­mary upset vic­tory against in­cum­bent Rep. Robert Pit­tenger. Pit­tenger re­ceived 17 votes via mail-in ab­sen­tee. In the gen­eral elec­tion, Har­ris won 420 mail-in ab­sen­tee votes to McCready’s 258.

Dow­less’ work in grass­roots or get-out-the-vote op­er­a­tions dates back to at least 2010. At the time, he was work­ing for a Demo­crat, Harold (Butch) Pope, who de­feated the in­cum­bent district at­tor­ney, Rex Gore, in the pri­mary. Pope re­ceived 195 mail-in ab­sen­tee votes to Gore’s 64 in Bladen County. Pope won by more than 2,100 votes over­all.

In the gen­eral elec­tion, Pope ran against David. In Bladen County, Pope re­ceived 610 mail-in ab­sen­tee votes to 148 for David. David won the elec­tion by 4,043 votes over­all. Pope paid Dow­less $ 7,127 for get-out-the-vote op­er­a­tions and ex­penses.

Pa­tri­ots for Progress was founded in 2014, doc­u­ments filed with the state board of elec­tions show. In the ini­tial fil­ing, Jeff Smith was listed as the trea­surer and Cindy Bris­son Lewis Smith was named the cus­to­dian of books. Nei­ther re­sponded to re­quests for com­ment Wed­nes­day evening.

The group says on its Face­book page that it is a Bladen County su­per PAC with a mis­sion “to help en­dorsed can­di­dates win their elec­tions.” The page does not name any of the backed can­di­dates.

The PAC’s first do­na­tion, for $ 100, came from Lan­don Bordeaux, who later be­came pres­i­dent of the Bladen County GOP. Reached by phone, Bordeaux said he did not re­mem­ber mak­ing the do­na­tion, but said he has known Smith since child­hood.

“It’s a small town,” he said. “We grew up to­gether.”

The doc­u­ments show that an ad­dress used for years by the PAC be­longs to Smith, and in 2014, Smith re­ceived a pay­ment of $800 for rent and $160 for salaries. Smith could not be reached to re­spond to ques­tions about Pa­tri­ots for Progress.

In ear­lier tele­phone in­ter­views, he con­firmed that he’s been called to ap­pear be­fore the elec­tions board, but he de­clined to get into de­tails. He said he had not done any­thing wrong in sup­port­ing or op­pos­ing can­di­dates for of­fice and re­ferred a re­porter to law­suits he had filed.

For a pe­riod of time, Dow­less claimed to be pres­i­dent of the group.

A let­ter dated Jan. 22, 2016, de­clares to the state that Dow­less is no longer a com­mit­tee mem­ber. Lewis is named the new pres­i­dent.

The group is now de­funct, with a sta­tus of “ter­mi­nated” on the state elec­tions board web­site. The last time a re­port was sub­mit­ted was in 2016.

The Bladen County Im­prove­ment As­so­ci­a­tion PAC has filed reg­u­lar re­ports with the state board since 1996. The state Demo­cratic Party has given money to the group in the past, in­clud­ing in 2018, ac­cord­ing to state records.

The PAC pays in­di­vid­u­als for get-out-the-vote ef­forts. It paid Lola Wooten $65 in Oc­to­ber. Wooten turned in 280 ab­sen­tee bal­lot re­quests in Bladen County this fall, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments re­leased by the state board. Dow­less turned in 590. It is not il­le­gal to gather ab­sen­tee bal­lot re­quests and turn them in.

It is il­le­gal to col­lect vot­ers’ ab­sen­tee bal­lots, which some vot­ers said both Dow­less or those work­ing for him and the Bladen County Im­prove­ment Project have done.

Date­sha Mont­gomery of Bladen County told the Ob­server on Wed­nes­day it’s not un­com­mon for in­di­vid­u­als to go door to door to col­lect ab­sen­tee bal­lots ahead of Elec­tion Day.

Mont­gomery is one of the many vot­ers in Bladen sus­pected by state in­ves­ti­ga­tors of un­wit­tingly turn­ing over her bal­lot to an in­di­vid­ual work­ing for Dow­less dur­ing the 2018 midterms. Mont­gomery filled out a sworn af­fi­davit that was de­liv­ered by the Demo­cratic Party to the state board.

But in years past, she says, other peo­ple knocked on her door re­quest­ing her bal­lot. She iden­ti­fied one of those peo­ple to the Ob­server as some­one who, pub­lic records show, was paid dur­ing pre­vi­ous elec­tions by the Bladen County Im­prove­ment As­so­ci­a­tion.

The dif­fer­ence, ac­cord­ing to Mont­gomery, is that the Im­prove­ment As­so­ci­a­tion ac­cepted her ab­sen­tee bal­lot sealed and al­ready filled out. And, ul­ti­mately, the group filed the bal­lot with her votes to the county’s elec­tion board, Mont­gomery said. This year was dif­fer­ent. Mont­gomery said she gave her 2018 bal­lot to a woman she didn’t know but whom she as­sumed worked with the Im­prove­ment As­so­ci­a­tion. At the time, she says, her bal­lot was in­com­plete and un­sealed.

Later, she says, she was told by state elec­tion of­fi­cials in­ves­ti­gat­ing Dow­less that her ab­sen­tee bal­lot was never filed. Mont­gomery even­tu­ally voted in per­son on Elec­tion Day.

Dow­less, the vice chair­man of the Bladen County wa­ter and soil con­ser­va­tion board, filed a protest with the state board in 2016 against the Bladen County Im­prove­ment As­so­ci­a­tion over sus­pi­cions about a large num­ber of write-in votes on mail-in ab­sen­tee bal­lots in the race, many of which had the same hand­writ­ing, The News & Ob­server re­ported at the time.

Dan Kane and David Raynor of The News& Ob­server con­trib­uted.

ALEX BRAN­DON NYT

TRAVIS LONG [email protected]­sob­server.com

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