RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's top elections official issued an urgent plea nearly two years ago for the Trump administration to file criminal charges against the man now at the center of ballot fraud allegations that have thrown a 2018 congressional race into turmoil.
N.C. Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Strach warned in a January 2017 letter first obtained by The Associated Press that those involved in illegally harvesting absentee ballots in rural Bladen County would likely do it again if they weren't prosecuted.
Josh Lawson, the top lawyer for the elections board, said Friday that Strach's memo was followed less than a month later with the first of several in-person meetings during which state investigators provided FBI agents and federal prosecutors with evidence accusing Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. and others of criminal activity.
"Our findings to date suggest that individuals and potentially groups of individuals engaged in efforts to manipulate election results through the absentee ballot process," Strach wrote in the letter, dated 10 days after President Donald Trump's inauguration. "The evidence we have obtained suggest that these efforts may have taken place in the past and if not addressed will likely continue for future elections."
At the time, there was only an acting U.S. attorney in office. Later in 2017, Trump's appointee arrived, but took no action to prosecute the matter. Instead, he assigned his staff to focus on a different priority — prosecuting a handful of non-citizens who had allegedly voted.
A spokesman for Robert J. Higdon, Jr., who took over as the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina in September 2017, has declined to comment on why no charges were filed following the state's criminal referrals against Dowless and other Bladen County political operatives. Justice Department spokeswoman Kelly Laco in Washington also declined to comment on Friday.
Higdon's office issued a media release in August of this year touting charges against 19 foreign nationals it said voted in North Carolina in the 2016 presidential election, during which more than 6.9 million ballots were cast in the state. The cases were filed in the wake of Trump's false claim that he lost the 2016 popular vote to his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton because millions of illegal immigrants had cast ballots across the country.
But court filings reviewed by AP show several of the cases built by Higdon's office were against longtime legal permanent residents or those who had been granted citizenship only to have authorities later determine they had been untruthful on their applications. At least four have pleaded guilty, with the only sentence meted out so far going against an Italian man who has lived legally in the United States since 1985. The judge in the case gave him a $200 fine and no prison time.
State elections board Chairman Joshua Malcolm declined Thursday to evaluate how U.S. prosecutors handled the board's referral of its 2016 Bladen County elections investigation, saying the board has a "very particular role." The agency's staff has legal authority to investigate elections crimes, but cannot make arrests or file criminal charges.
After federal prosecutors took no action, documents show the elections board referred the case to state prosecutors in January 2018. No charges were filed before the November general election, which was marred by voting irregularities involving absentee ballots cast in Bladen and two neighboring counties. Authorities say Dowless is the subject of an investigation into those irregularities.
"Our role is to investigate matters ... and to refer matters to prosecutors and law enforcement officials to carry out their responsibility," said Malcolm, a Democrat. "We don't control what happens once we make a referral."
The board has refused to certify the results of the November general election for the state's 9th congressional district. Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by just 905 votes in 2018's only still unresolved House election, according to unofficial results. State leaders from both parties now concede a do-over election might eventually be needed, though GOP officials have sought to put the blame for the mess squarely onto the elections board.
The board plans to weigh the evidence against Dowless and others at a Jan. 11 public hearing.
Investigators are looking into whether Dowless, 62, ran an illegal operation to collect large numbers of absentee ballots from voters in at least three counties with the intent of aiding the GOP candidates.
A convicted felon, Dowless didn't respond this week to messages seeking comment. His lawyer, Cynthia Adams Singletary, said that any speculation regarding her client and the 9th District election is premature and unwarranted. Through his attorney, Dowless has declined to be interviewed by state investigators.
Harris, the GOP congressional candidate, said in an interview last week that it was his decision to hire Dowless, though he denied knowledge of any potential wrongdoing.
Associated Press investigative reporter Michael Biesecker reported from Washington.