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Bladen prosecutor’s calls went unreturned as state probed absentee ballot issues

January 15th, 2019

— In the summer of 2017, the chief prosecutor for Bladen County sent the head of North Carolina’s State Board of Elections a series of increasingly insistent emails over the board’s voting integrity concerns in his county.

The upshot: Why isn’t your office responding?

“The municipal elections are coming up, and I’m interested in knowing the findings of your investigation and what steps can be taken to prevent future irregularities in the process,” Assistant District Attorney Quintin McGee wrote to Kim Strach, executive director of the elections board, in late August 2017.

By October, McGee was getting into all caps over his frustration with Joan Fleming, a former FBI agent who heads the state board’s investigative unit.

“I have made MULTIPLE attempts since then to reach Mrs. Fleming, left numerous messages, and I have not received so much as a return phone call,” McGee wrote in an email released by the state board. “I am certain that your office is very busy at this time of year, but my office needs to remain informed as to what is transpiring in these matters.”

That triggered an apology.

Strach said the problem was likely that the state board offices had moved and changed phone numbers. But the old numbers were still active, Strach said, allowing people to leave voicemails board staff couldn’t check.

Why some of McGee’s emails hadn’t been answered wasn’t addressed, beyond a reference to a busy municipal elections season and a state board with limited resources. But follow-ups were promised, and McGee responded to say he had a good conversation with Fleming that afternoon and their “communication difficulties” were addressed.

But it wasn’t just crossed wires.

State board staff, a spokesman said Tuesday, were concerned about “then undisclosed conflicts or apparent conflicts” that might affect the participation in the case by McGee’s boss, District Attorney Jon David.

“We engaged instead with the entities to which the case was referred,” board attorney Josh Lawson said in an emailed statement.

The state board had referred its concerns only to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina, a decision made in late 2016 after a half-day hearing unearthed accusations of absentee ballot fraud in Bladen County. Witnesses now say a similar plan to go door to door collecting absentee ballots was executed in the 2018 elections, which is why North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District election remains unresolved more than two months after the vote – and approaching two weeks since the rest of Congress was seated.

Why the 2016 allegations and concerns from previous election cycles back to at least 2010 weren’t fully addressed by prosecutors and state election officials before last November’s elections has been one of the lingering questions in the 9th District saga.

David would eventually recuse himself from the investigation, turning his inquiry over to Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman in January 2018. He said at the time that the man at the center of this investigation, long-time Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless, had worked for two of his opponents in the past. Dowless worked for Republican Mark Harris in last year’s 9th District race.

State Board of Elections spokesman Pat Gannon said Tuesday that the agency wouldn’t comment on what David’s conflict of interest was. Freeman said Tuesday that her understanding is that the board was concerned David may have had an additional conflict.

WBTV reported in December that David dated Ashley Trivette, a Bladen County commissioner who had used Dowless in one of her races. He told the station at the time the relationship didn’t influence his office’s efforts to seek information about the state investigation and that any suggestion he would let a personal relationship influence a case was “is not only wrong, it’s deeply offensive.”

Through an assistant, David declined Tuesday to discuss this issue and others. Freeman said both the state board and David’s office have been helpful in her investigation.

“I have had zero interaction with Jon David that in any way has led me to believe he has tried to influence the investigation,” she said.

Freeman said she hopes to wrap her case in the next 30 to 60 days. It has expanded repeatedly, and she said she’s looking not just at a pattern of voting irregularities in Bladen County, but also how the operation was funded and who was involved in “encouraging and making possible” things that are being investigated.

“That brings you potentially to a larger circle,” she said. “The more you investigate … the more people it becomes important to interview and talk to.”

Freeman said joined this case in January 2018, but the handoff wasn’t fully sanctioned by the state Administrative Office of the Courts until last month, when David made a formal request to the AOC, the central administrative arm for courts across the state.

That’s when AOC Director Marion Warren approved a temporary assistance agreement between Freeman’s office and David’s. Warren is a former judge in the 13th Judicial District, which includes Bladen County, and Harris has said it was Warren who introduced him to Dowless.

Warren went weeks without responding to WRAL News messages seeking confirmation of this and other details of that relationship. He agreed last week to accept emailed questions but said Tuesday he was still deciding whether to answer them.

Article source: https://www.wral.com/bladen-prosecutor-s-calls-went-unreturned-as-state-probed-absentee-ballot-issues/18126338/

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