WBTV among media coalition seeking to unseal search warrants in NC-9 investigation

McCrae Dowless and his attorney leave the Wake County Jail.
McCrae Dowless and his attorney leave the Wake County Jail.
Published: Mar. 5, 2019 at 10:32 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A coalition of more than a dozen media outlets, including WBTV, the Washington Post and the New York Times, has filed a petition seeking to unseal three search warrants that have been filed by the Wake County District Attorney as part of the criminal investigation into voting irregularities in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District.

The search warrants seek bank records and phone records related to McCrae Dowless, a Republican political operative who worked for Mark Harris in the 2018 race for the 9th District.

Dowless was indicted last week on charges including possession of an absentee ballot, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice related to activities he is accused of carrying our in the 2016 general election and 2018 primary election.

The criminal investigation into Dowless and others related to the 2018 general election remains ongoing, Wake County DA Lorrin Freeman has said.

The North Carolina State Board of Elections voted unanimously to hold a new election in late February at the abrupt end of a four-day hearing into voting irregularities in the district, specifically in Bladen and Robeson Counties.

Related: Sealed search warrants show SBI sought bank, phone records of McCrae Dowless in NC-9 investigation

The three warrants were filed between December 2018 and January 2019, after the NCSBE voted to launch its own investigation into election irregularities. Freeman, the Wake County DA handling the case, began her inquiry in January 2018.

WBTV was first to uncover information about the warrants’ existence in February when a reporter from the station found two of the three warrants listed in a log of sealed warrants maintained by the Wake County Clerk of Court.

The third warrant, the existence of which was first reported by WRAL, was returned last Friday.

Attorneys for the media coalition filed a petition to unseal all three warrants, saying the reasons given for keeping the warrants secret are not longer valid.

“Upon information and belief, the only justifications made for sealing of the search warrants is to protect an ongoing investigation and to withhold the identity of the person under investigation,” the coalition’s petition said. “Neither of these interests supports the extraordinary measure of sealing search warrants.”

The petition also points out that the reason for sealing at least one of the warrants--to keep secret the identity of the person under investigation--is frustrated by the court’s own records of the sealed warrant.

Related: McCrae Dowless indicted, charged with election-related crimes during NC-9 investigation

“Moreover, the Clerk’s log (Exhibit D) plainly identifies that the two warrants that have been returned and sealed pertain to Leslie McCrae Dowless, yet the public is in the dark, left to speculate about what evidence there may or may not be of a crime by someone who is well known to be at the center of the State Board of Elections’ investigation into potential election fraud in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District and its vote to conduct a new election,” the petition said.

According to the legal filing, neither Freeman, the District Attorney, nor an attorney for Dowless oppose the effort to unseal the warrants.

A judge could either sign an order unsealing the warrants without a hearing or could order the parties to appear in court and make arguments in support of the court records being unsealed.

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