Politics & Government

Authorities had 9th District operative under surveillance before 2018 election

State and federal law enforcement officials had Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless under surveillance as far back as last May, according to newly unsealed search warrants.

Before arresting Dowless last month in North Carolina’s 9th District election fraud case, authorities went after his phone records, ATM transactions and bank records for his political action committee, according to the warrants.

Dowless is at the center of ongoing state and federal investigations into election fraud in the 9th Congressional District. The investigations last month led the State Board of Elections to take the unprecedented step of ordering a new election in the district that runs from Charlotte past Fayetteville.

In releasing its official order on the new election Wednesday, the state board cited “the long shadow of uncertainty” caused by absentee ballot fraud. It said the alleged fraud was funded principally by the campaign of Republican Mark Harris. Harris led Democrat Dan McCready on Election Day by 905 votes in unofficial returns.

“Tampering, obstruction and disguise have obscured the precise number of votes either unlawfully counted or excluded,” the board wrote, “but substantial evidence supports our conclusion that the absentee ballot scheme and other irregularities cast doubt on the outcome.”

Dowless was the first of five people arrested so far on state charges of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and possession of absentee ballots in what election officials have called “a coordinated, unlawful, and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme.”

The warrants released Wednesday relate to allegations of absentee ballot fraud in the 2016 general and 2018 primary election. The State Bureau of Investigations first initiated its Bladen County absentee ballot investigation on Feb. 28, 2018, at the request of Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman.

That investigation is ongoing. Federal investigators with the U.S. Department of Justice Public Integrity Section have also issued subpoenas to Harris and other parties in the case.

The warrants, unsealed at the request of The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer as part of a 14-member media coalition, indicate that specific records were seized. Among them:

Records of transactions for two CashPoint ATMs on May 3, 2018, at Bladenboro and Elizabethtown. That includes any video surveillance, account numbers and other records. Investigators appear to be looking for specific transactions, as they requested records between 8:15 and 9 a.m. at the Bladenboro machine and between 10:35 and 10:55 a.m. at the Elizabethtown machine.

Those times coincide with times that Dowless was under surveillance by agents from the SBI and the FBI. According to affidavits, the agents saw Dowless meeting with “different individuals” at the Bladenboro ATM, located outside gas station convenience stores. The people Dowless met with then went to the Cashpoint ATM and conducted several transactions, the affidavit says. Later that morning, Dowless went to another CashPoint ATM in Elizabethtown, where he conducted more transactions.

The CashPoint ATM transactions that the agents tailing Dowless observed were five days before the May 8 primary, in which Harris — who had hired Dowless to run his absentee ballot efforts in Bladen and Robeson counties — defeated incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger by 828 votes.

Dowless’ cellphone records from Metro PCS. That includes all text messages, cell tower location data and GPS data, voice mails and call records from between Jan. 1, 2016 to Jan. 15 this year.

Records from Wells Fargo of all bank accounts and transactions associated with Patriots for Progress, a defunct political action committee co-founded by Dowless and his former associate Jeff Smith in 2014.

During last month’s State Board of Elections hearing, investigators revealed that when Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris hired Dowless in April 2017, his first payments were two personal checks totaling $3,340 that he made out to Patriots for Progress.

Affidavits attached to search warrants describe Dowless’ absentee ballot program.

Several people told investigators that Dowless paid them to collect completed ballots as well as absentee ballot request forms. They detailed different payment schemes from Dowless.

Tonia Gordon — who was charged in connection with the 2016 election — told investigators that Dowless paid her $5 for every absentee ballot request form and $5 for every completed absentee ballot she collected. She was interviewed by an SBI and an FBI agent in October.

Kelly Hendrix, who testified during the elections board hearing and has not been charged, told investigators that Dowless would give her “gas money” for collecting absentee ballot request forms and completed ballots.

Matthew Matthis and Caitlin Croom, who have been charged, told investigators that they were paid $112.50 for every 20 absentee ballot request forms and another $112.50 for every 20 completed absentee ballots they brought Dowless prior to the 2016 general election.

“Croom said a text message was sent to McCrae Dowless regarding receiving a bonus payment from McCrae Dowless if certain political candidates won their elections,” one investigator’s affidavit says. The affidavit does not say if the bonus was paid.

New primaries are scheduled for May 14. The general election would be Sept. 9, unless that date is needed for a runoff. Then the general election would be Nov. 5.

So far four candidates have filed.

Follow more of our reporting on The North Carolina election fraud investigation

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