RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Search warrants unsealed Wednesday show that a North Carolina political operative suspected of illegally handling election ballots in 2016 was under surveillance by FBI and state investigative agents days before last year's primary.
The three search warrants issued in December and January were part of a state investigation that's yielded felony election-law charges against Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., 63. The warrants were unsealed at the request of a media coalition including the Associated Press.
Dowless and four people he allegedly hired to collect ballots were charged in state court last month on charges including possessing absentee ballots related to their work in the 2016 primary and general elections and last year's GOP primary. The district attorney prosecuting the case said she also is investigating potential crimes leading up to the 2018 general election.
Dowless last year worked to increase mail-in ballot results for the incumbent Bladen County sheriff, who won, and for Republican 9th Congressional District candidate Mark Harris, who at first appeared to narrowly beat Democrat Dan McCready in November's election. That result was never certified.
A state investigation found the contest "was corrupted by fraud, improprieties, and irregularities so pervasive that its results are tainted as the fruit of an operation manifestly unfair to the voters and corrosive to our system of representative government," the state elections board said in a summary of its hearings last month released Wednesday.
The elections board ordered new elections in the congressional race and two local contests caught in the uncertainty caused by the absentee ballot operation funded mainly by Harris' campaign.
"Tampering, obstruction and disguise have obscured the precise number of votes either unlawfully counted or excluded, but substantial evidence supports our conclusion that the absentee ballot scheme and other irregularities cast doubt on the outcome of each contest subject," the elections board said.
The summary provides no evidence that the number of completed mail-in ballots handled and potentially corrupted by Dowless and his team exceeded Harris' 905 vote lead after November's election.
"It is neither required nor possible for the State Board to determine the precise number of ballots affected in circumstances such as this," the summary said.
Harris is not running in the new election, which has party primaries scheduled in May. McCready filed as a candidate on Tuesday.
The search warrants show that Dowless and his 2016 activities were being investigated as last year's elections were unfolding. The state elections board had uncovered Dowless' 2016 suspected ballot-collection efforts and advised federal prosecutors in January 2017 that they should investigate. No federal charges resulted, but the search warrants show the FBI was apparently reacting to the warnings.
One search warrant said an FBI agent was watching an automated teller machine outside a Bladenboro gas station early on May 3. Dowless was seen meeting with several people, who soon used the ATM. About two hours later, two State Bureau of Investigation agents were watching as Dowless used a different ATM, the warrant said.
Authorities demanded video, account holder information and other data, and the owner of the ATMs produced it, the warrant said.
Dowless often visits the identified ATM to tap Social Security disability payments he's received since suffering a heart attack seven years ago, his attorney, Cynthia Singletary wrote in an email.
Investigators also sought bank records related to a political action committee.
Harris testified last month that in 2017 he wrote two checks totaling $3,340 as a retainer for Dowless' ballot work ahead of the May 2018 Republican primary. The money was sent to a political action committee, or PAC, at Dowless' request, Harris testified. The PAC's campaign finance reports show it had made payments to Dowless in 2014 and 2015, the warrant said.
The PAC was shut down by the state elections board in September 2017 for failing to comply with state campaign finance laws.