Elections board: Bladen DA had ‘undisclosed apparent conflict of interest' when he sought investigation info in ’17

Elections board: Bladen DA had ‘undisclosed conflict of interest' when he sought investigation info in ’17

ELIZABETHTOWN, NC (WBTV) – Emails released by Bladen County District Attorney Jon David show senior staff in his office aggressively sought information in 2017 about the ongoing investigation into potential election fraud in the county even as staff at the North Carolina State Board of Elections were concerned David had an undisclosed conflict of interest.

The NCSBE began investigating potential election fraud in Bladen County following the 2016 election.

The board released its nearly 300-page case file earlier this week, which detailed evidence investigators said led them to conclude that one political operative was paying individuals to collect absentee ballots and, later, tried to obstruct NCSBE’s investigation.

The case file also showed investigators thought a different group paid people who improperly assisted voters in casting absentee ballots.

A letter included in the release of the case file this week shows the evidence gathered by the NCSBE was forwarded to state and federal prosecutors in January 2018 but no action was taken prior to the November 2018 election.

On Friday, the Associated Press obtained a letter sent by the NCSBE to federal prosecutors in January 2017 outlining some of the board’s findings and warning the same fraudulent behavior could take place again.

The NCSBE did not send a similar letter referring its findings to the Bladen County District Attorney, Jon David, who would have had state jurisdiction over the potential crimes.

Despite that, records released by David’s office on Friday show his office made a number of inquiries about the board’s ongoing investigation throughout 2017.

David released dozens of emails on Friday showing his staff frequently messages NCSBE Director Kim Strach and Chief Investigator Joan Flemming seeking information about the ongoing investigation.

Often times, the emails show, the inquiries were returned late or not at all.

Reached for comment Friday afternoon by WBTV about why the board was slow to respond to inquires from David’s office, a board spokesman issued the following statement:

“The agency was concerned at the time that then-undisclosed conflicts or apparent conflicts could affect the local prosecutor’s participation. We engaged instead with the entities to which the case was referred. The prosecutor ultimately recused.”

Eventually, David recused himself in January 2018, citing the fact that McCrae Dowless—one of the main targets of the ongoing investigation, who worked for Republican Mark Harris in the 2018 election—worked for his opponent in 2010 as a main reason for needing to recuse himself.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman is leading the state investigation into potential voting irregularities in Bladen County and elsewhere with the assistance of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.

Freeman’s investigation expanded in the fall, following the 2018 general election, after the NCSBE voted to not certify the results of the 9th Congressional District election.

In voting to not certify the race, board members cited irregularities with absentee ballots in Bladen and Robeson Counties.

Since that time, WBTV has identified at least three coordinated efforts to promote and target absentee ballots.

One of those efforts was led by a man named McCrae Dowless, who was hired by Republican Mark Harris’ campaign in 2018.

Harris narrowly beat Democrat Dan McCready in the 9th District race.

Campaign finance records obtained by WBTV also show Dowless worked for a woman named Ashley Trivette, who ran a successful campaign for Bladen County Commissioner in 2016.

Multiple sources confirm to WBTV that Trivette and David have been engaged in an ongoing romantic relationship.

Such a relationship, which has not been previously disclosed publicly, could present a conflict of interest for David’s involvement in any ongoing investigation into Dowless’ election-related activities in 2016 or beyond.

Records obtained by WBTV show David directed staff to call the NCSBE and set up a meeting to discuss topics related to the 2018 investigation as recently as last week.

The first voicemail was left on Strach’s line. In the message, Ashley Bullard, an assistant for David, said the following:

“Hi Ms. Strach, my name is Ashley Bullard. I’m calling from District Attorney John David’s office. He wanted me to call and see if you would be available today to have a call with him and his chief prosecutor Clint McGee in the Bladen office, um, in regards to, um, some media req—public records requests we’ve received from the media and in regards to the investigation into the Bladen County fraud issue. Um, when you get a second, if you would give me a call back and let me know if you’re available at some point today. I think their preference is two o’clock today but I’m sure they will be flexible depending on what your schedule is. I would be happy to facilitate that. You can reach me at 910-253-xxxx. Thanks so much. I look forward to speaking to you. Bye.”

A second voicemail message shows Bullard’s first call was returned by NCSBE’s General Counsel, Josh Lawson. Bullard said the following in the second message:

“Hi Mr. Lawson, my name is Ashley Bullard; returning your call to the district attorney’s office. I appreciate your call back. I’ll follow up this voicemail with an email that, specifically, Mr. David just has a few general questions he would like to speak with Ms. Strach and yourself and whoever you think is pertinent to the call. He’s available this afternoon until around four and then again in the morning; early morning, I guess prior to lunch. So, um, I’ll just send you an email. You can either give me a call back you can just reply to that. Thank you so much, have a great day.”

In the first message, Bullard said David wanted to reach out to discuss a pending public records request and also “the investigation into the Bladen County fraud issue.” In the second message, Bullard said he had “a few general questions” he would like to speak with Strach and other NCSBE staff about.

Strach, the NCSBE director, has been on the ground in Bladen and Robeson Counties leading the agency’s investigation into potential voting irregularities along with the board’s chief investigator.

Despite that, David told WBTV in a statement that his only outreach to NCSBE staff was regarding the pending public records request that his office received from the Raleigh News & Observer and denied that his office ever tried to speak with an NCSBE investigator.

“Since referring this case, the only contact my office made with the State Board of Elections was a telephone call last week to their legal department in an attempt to coordinate the disclosure of documents pursuant to a public record request,” David said. “At no time did we discuss the content of any investigation.”

When a reporter replied to David’s initial emailed statement to point out his assistant clearly included his desire to discuss the investigation generally in both of her voicemails, David said again that he only wanted to discuss the pending public records request.

“Again, our only motivation in contacting the attorney general’s office and the state board of elections was to fulfill this request,” David said in a second email.

“Your interpretation of Mrs. Bullard‘s message is at odds with its plain meaning,” David continued. “A reference to the Bladen fraud investigation merely qualifies what public records request she was alluding to in the first part of that sentence.”

David did not respond to a new inquiry from a WBTV report on Friday afternoon regarding the new revelation that his staff repeatedly sought information about the ongoing Bladen County investigation in 2017, when NCSBE staff were concerned he had an undisclosed conflict of interest.

But David’s chief prosecutor in his Bladen County office, Quintin McGee, sent the following statement:

“In response to your question, the indication that I received from speaking with Joan Fleming during the investigation was that the NC State Board of Elections would be referring the Patriots for Progress matter for federal prosecution while the Board would not be recommending moving forward with a prosecution against the Bladen County Improvement Association. Prior to receiving the Board of Elections report on January 26, it was my office’s position that both entities should be prosecuted (not just Patriots for Progress) because it appeared that both agencies had violated the law which is why I began to focus on Bladen Improvement (the Board was already going to recommend federal prosecution against Patriots for Progress). Once we received the report, the decision was made to refer the matter to the Wake County DA who assumed the prosecution from that point. Any state-level charging decisions related to the case are in their discretion.”

Trivette responded to multiple inquires from a WBTV report with a statement confirming Dowless worked for her campaign in 2016 but did not address questions related to her ongoing romantic relationship with David.

David said the relationship did not have any influence over his office’s efforts to seek information about the ongoing investigation being conducted by the NCSBE.

“Any suggestion that I allowed a personal relationship to influence my handling of this case is not only wrong, it’s deeply offensive,” he said.

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