Politics & Government

US Justice Department probe ratchets up scrutiny into 9th District election fraud

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Election fraud investigation

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The U.S. Justice Department has opened a second front in a criminal investigation of alleged election fraud in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

The department’s Public Integrity Section, which prosecutes political corruption cases, has issued grand jury subpoenas to Republican Mark Harris and other parties in the case.

The Justice investigation comes on top of a state probe by Wake County prosecutors that already has resulted in five arrests. It would widen the scope to include federal crimes.

Both Harris and his campaign were subpoenaed to present documents to a federal grand jury next month, according to Harris’s attorney, David Freedman. So was the State Board of Elections, a spokesman confirmed.

WBTV reported a subpoena also went to McCrae Dowless, the Bladen County operative at the center of the fraud allegations. He could not be reached.

The Justice Department’s involvement raises the legal stakes for any defendant, who could be charged and convicted of both state and federal crimes.

“The federal government is doing its due diligence because this is a matter of significant public interest,” said Richard Myers, a UNC law professor and former federal prosecutor. “(But) if you are a potential defendant, it won’t make you comfortable.”

‘Absentee ballot scheme’

It’s the latest turn in a saga that began shortly after last fall’s election.

Harris led Democrat Dan McCready on Election Day. But the state elections board twice declined to certify the election after one member cited “unfortunate activities” in the eastern part of the district.

A board investigation led to what election officials called “a coordinated, unlawful, and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme” in Bladen and Robeson counties during the 2018 election. After a four-day hearing in February, the board called for a new election. Candidates are filing this week for a May 14 special primary.

In a statement, Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the elections board, said the board is compiling records in response to the grand jury subpoena.

“We support the efforts of state and federal authorities to investigate and prosecute crimes against the elections process,” Strach said. “We hope that prosecutions in these cases will help restore voters’ confidence in our elections and serve as a strong deterrent to future elections fraud.”

Five people including Dowless have been arrested on state charges related to the absentee-ballot scheme. Dowless, 63, faces three felony charges of obstruction of justice, two charges of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and two charges of possession of absentee ballot.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said her investigation will go on concurrently with the federal probe.

“It is readily apparent why the U.S. attorney’s office and the Department of Justice would have interest in an investigation and possible prosecution of a case that clearly had an impact on a federal race,” Freeman told the Observer.

The Justice Department could widen the scope of the investigation, looking into possible violations of federal law such as those involving campaign finance.

‘Under everybody’s nose’

Officials from Public Integrity first began looking into election irregularities involving North Carolina’s 2016 election, according to emails obtained this year by The News & Observer. The elections board had investigated Dowless and others after that election and referred its findings to federal prosecutors in the Eastern District.

According to the N&O, state officials emailed the Justice Department’s James Mann a summary of its investigation into the 2016 election, including actions by Dowless and the Patriots For Progress PAC. No charges were brought.

But the PAC came up again at February’s hearing. Harris testified that he initially paid Dowless with two checks made out to the independent expenditure PAC. Asked if he was aware that independent expenditure groups like Patriots for Progress are legally barred from working with candidates, Harris said he wasn’t.

Mann was one of the DOJ attorneys who issued this week’s subpoenas.

Jim Coleman, a Duke University law professor and director of the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility, said he’s glad the Justice Department is pursuing the allegations of election fraud.

“DOJ has been talking about voter fraud for the last two years, and they’ve been focused on on areas where historically there has been very little voter fraud, that is people showing up who have not been eligible,” Coleman said. “What they were missing was the actual fraud going on under everybody’s nose. Including the Justice Department’s.”

Staff writer Michael Gordon contributed.