U.S. o∞cials knew of N.C. op­er­a­tive

Be­fore 2018 ballot fraud al­le­ga­tions, in­ves­ti­ga­tors were told of com­plaints

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY BETH REINHARD [email protected]­post.com

Nine months be­fore al­le­ga­tions of ab­sen­tee ballot fraud tainted a con­gres­sional race in North Carolina, the state elec­tions board gave of­fi­cials from the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s main of­fice ev­i­dence that the po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tive at the cen­ter of the scan­dal had used sim­i­lar tac­tics in 2016.

On Jan. 31, 2018, the chief of the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s Pub­lic In­tegrity Sec­tion, which over­sees pros­e­cu­tions of elec­tion crimes, met in Raleigh with state of­fi­cials and U.S. at­tor­ney Robert Hig­don, ac­cord­ing to an elec­tions board spokesman.

The fol­low­ing day, the state of­fi­cials sent a pub­lic in­tegrity lawyer an eight-page memo de­scrib­ing in­ter­views with two cam­paign work­ers who said they were paid dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion to hand­de­liver mail-in bal­lots to po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tive Les­lie Mc­Crae Dow­less. Un­der North Carolina law, only vot­ers or their close rel­a­tives or guardians may de­liver or mail in bal­lots. The memo also sum­ma­rized in­ter­views with three Bladen County vot­ers who filed com­plaints say­ing those cam­paign work­ers had sought their bal­lots.

The meet­ing and fol­low-up email, ob­tained by The Wash­ing­ton Post un­der a pub­lic records re­quest, are the first pub­lic in­di­ca­tions that of­fi­cials with the Jus­tice De­part­ment in Wash­ing­ton were made aware of the al­le­ga­tions against Dow­less. Dow­less has emerged in re­cent weeks as a key fig­ure in the ab­sen­tee ballot scan­dal in Repub­li­can Mark Har­ris’s 2018 con­gres­sional bid. State elec­tions of­fi­cials and some vot­ers have ex­pressed frus­tra­tion that fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors with the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice in North Carolina did not act more ag­gres­sively to pur­sue ear­lier com­plaints against Dow­less and po­ten­tially stop him from work­ing on cam­paigns.

Dow­less worked for one of Har­ris’s cam­paign ven­dors, and the state elec­tions board has de­clined to cer­tify his nar­row win in the 9th Con­gres­sional Dis­trict amid al­le­ga­tions that ballot tam­per­ing may have af­fected the re­sults. Dow­less did not re­spond to mes­sages seek­ing com­ment and has pre­vi­ously de­clined in­ter­view re­quests.

“I re­ally ex­pected some­thing would be done about this,” said Linda John­son-Bald­win, a re­tired prin­ci­pal and one of the three vot­ers who filed com­plaints about ab­sen­tee ballot col­lec­tion in 2016. Told her com­plaint was shared with the Jus­tice De­part­ment, she added: “I didn’t even know it went that far. So was any­thing done about it?”

A Jus­tice De­part­ment spokesman de­clined to com­ment. An FBI spokes­woman in Raleigh did not re­turn phone calls. A spokesman for Hig­don also de­clined to com­ment.

The other two vot­ers who filed com­plaints, Brenda Reg­is­ter and Heather Reg­is­ter, who are not re­lated, also said they never heard from fed­eral law en­force­ment af­ter giv­ing in­ter­views to state elec­tions in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

Josh Law­son, gen­eral coun­sel for the state elec­tions board, said he saw lit­tle in­di­ca­tion that fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors pur­sued the Dow­less mat­ter. “Meet­ings did not re­sult in pros­e­cu­tions or sub­stan­tial work in the dis­trict be­fore the elec­tion,” he said.

Other emails ob­tained by The Post shed ad­di­tional light on state elec­tions of­fi­cials’ en­treaties to fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors and the FBI.

Af­ter the pri­mary in May of last year, elec­tions of­fi­cials pro­vided the FBI with records that they said sug­gested “new ef­forts by ‘MD,’ ” an ap­par­ent ref­er­ence to Dow­less. That com­mu­ni­ca­tion was ref­er­enced in a re­minder email Joan Flem­ing, a state elec­tions in­ves­ti­ga­tor, sent to an FBI agent on Oct. 3, a month be­fore the midterm elec­tion.

“For this elec­tion, Bladen County’s ABS re­quests are off the charts,” Flem­ing wrote to FBI agent Ju­lia Han­ish, us­ing short­hand for ab­sen­tee bal­lots.

The email ad­dress mis­spelled Han­ish’s name, us­ing two N’s, and it was un­clear whether the email was re­ceived. An email sent to that ad­dress seek­ing com­ment bounced back.

Af­ter the Novem­ber elec­tion, re­ports that un­usu­ally high num­bers of mail-in bal­lots were re­quested in the county but not re­turned fu­eled ques­tions about the in­tegrity of the con­gres­sional elec­tion. State elec­tions in­ves­ti­ga­tors have spo­ken with wit­nesses who link Dow­less to the ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties, peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the probe have said.

Har­ris has de­nied knowl­edge of any wrong­do­ing by Dow­less dur­ing the cam­paign.

The Jan. 31 meet­ing in Raleigh in­cluded a broad dis­cus­sion of cam­paign prac­tices in North Carolina, in­clud­ing the 2016 al­le­ga­tions in Bladen County, state elec­tions board spokesman Pat Gan­non said. The elec­tions board had ini­tially re­ferred those al­le­ga­tions to the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice a year ear­lier, warning that those ac­tiv­i­ties “if not ad­dressed will likely con­tinue for fu­ture elec­tions.”

The email sent the fol­low­ing day in­cluded a tran­script of Dow­less’s tes­ti­mony at an elec­tions board hear­ing in De­cem­ber 2016. Dow­less ac­knowl­edged that his cam­paign work­ers col­lected ab­sen­tee bal­lots in vi­o­la­tion of state law but said that he had not told them to do so and that he later or­dered them to re­turn the bal­lots.

On Feb. 28, 2018, state elec­tions of­fi­cials met again with fed­eral law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties to dis­cuss sus­pi­cious cam­paign ac­tiv­i­ties in Bladen County, Gan­non con­firmed. Han­ish and two pros­e­cu­tors from Hig­don’s of­fice at­tended the meet­ing.

Mar­shall Tu­tor, a state elec­tions board in­ves­ti­ga­tor who worked with Flem­ing on prob­ing elec­tion ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties, said he thought the case re­ferred to pros­e­cu­tors was strong.

“You dig and dig and dig, and then nothing comes of it, which is quite frus­trat­ing,” Tu­tor said in an in­ter­view. He re­tired in March.

TRAVIS LONG/RALEIGH NEWS AND OB­SERVER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Two cam­paign work­ers said they were paid in 2016 to de­liver mail-in bal­lots to Les­lie Mc­Crae Dow­less.

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