Updated March 7 with new developments.
A little more than a week after a Wake County grand jury indicted five people on charges related to an alleged ballot-harvesting scheme in Bladen County, all of the accused have been arrested.
The State Bureau of Investigation arrested the alleged ringleader, Leslie McCrae Dowless, a 63-year-old political operative and elected official, last week. He made his initial appearance in court Tuesday, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said.
Dowless had been scheduled to appear in court March 25, but he received incorrect information from a magistrate and showed up weeks early, Freeman said. Since Dowless and his attorney, Cynthia Singletary, had driven hours from Bladen County, Freeman decided to go ahead with the hearing, she said.
Dowless faces three counts of felony obstruction of justice, two counts of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and two counts of possession of an absentee ballot. Under North Carolina law, a voter’s mail-in absentee ballot may be handled by others only in very limited circumstances.
The charges relate to the 2016 general election and 2018 primary. Charges stemming from the 2018 general election are expected to follow.
In 2018, Dowless’ most high-profile client was the Republican congressional candidate in the state’s 9th district, Mark Harris. The North Carolina State Board of Elections recently held a hearing about absentee ballot irregularities in that race and ordered a new election after about four days of testimony. The board’s unanimous vote came shortly after Harris conceded that a new election was warranted.
Dowless’ attorney, Singletary, told the board that Dowless would only testify if offered immunity from criminal prosecution. The board declined. Singletary has declined to comment on the criminal charges Dowless now faces.
Dowless is no longer in law enforcement custody. His $30,000 secured bond was paid by a prominent Elizabethtown businessman whose furniture shop is where Harris said he first met Dowless, BladenOnline.com reported.
Ray Britt, the owner of Ray’s Furniture and Jewelry Liquidators, a Bladen County commissioner and a former member of the Bladen County Board of Elections, told the news website that he collected money from several people who had an interest in Dowless working with his attorney and getting to the bottom of the allegations that have sullied the county’s reputation. Britt declined to name the other contributors. He did not return a call from The News & Observer.