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NC investigator pinged feds over 2018 election concerns

January 16th, 2019

— The State Board of Elections reached out to federal investigators in June over issues with the May primaries, then followed up in October with concerns that the pattern was repeating as the general election approached.

What follow-up federal investigators pursued has been difficult to determine.

U.S. Attorney Robert Higdon’s office, which was brought into the case of alleged voting irregularities in Bladen County in 2017, has repeatedly declined comment. Other federal investigators and officials either declined comment or didn’t return messages.

But emails released by the State Board of Elections show communication with Higdon’s office and others in the U.S. Department of Justice over Bladen County election concerns going back to at least January 2017, after concerns arose with 2016 absentee results in the county. Similar concerns are the reason results in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District race haven’t been finalized more than two months after the 2018 elections, leaving the state short one member in Congress.

Emails released by the state board indicate that issues from 2016 eventually went as high as the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Sector Acting Chief Annalou Tirol, who visited Raleigh at the end of January 2018. By then, the state board had produced an eight-page report summarizing criminal violations it believed occurred in Bladen County during the 2016 elections.

A planning email, first reported by The Washington Post, indicates that Tirol set aside an hour and a half for the meeting, held at Higdon’s office. A year earlier, the board had sent the Justice Department a letter warning that “efforts to manipulate election results” in Bladen County would likely continue and asked the local U.S. attorney to get involved.

In June 2018, the state board’s lead investigator, Joan Fleming, apparently reached out to FBI Agent Julia Hanish. An October follow-up email released by the state board has Fleming recounting that the board shared records from the May 2018 primary, which showed a number of people pairing up as witnesses on absentee ballots. These people were “possibly associated with new efforts by MD,” the email states.

“MD” is presumably McCrae Dowless, whom state investigators have named as a person of interest in the 9th District inquiry. He has denied, through his attorney, any wrongdoing. But a number of people have told media outlets, including WRAL News, that he supervised a door-to-door operation to collect absentee ballots, which is a felony due to tampering concerns.

The pairing up Fleming referenced is significant: Absentee ballots have to be witnessed under North Carolina law either by a notary public or two other people. The same names pop up dozens of times on absentee ballot envelopes from Bladen and Robeson counties, indicating coordinated efforts. It’s not illegal to witness multiple ballots, but it’s a red flag for investigators.

Fleming’s email continued, saying Bladen County’s absentee ballot requests for the coming November elections were “off the charts” and that paired witness signatures were turning up in some of the early ballots cast.

Local records show that Dowless himself turned in nearly 600 of the roughly 1,340 absentee ballot requests Bladen County received ahead of the November election.

Names and other details are redacted from Fleming’s email, which was apparently not received. Hanish’s name is misspelled in it, with two n’s, invalidating the email address. State Board of Elections spokesman Patrick Gannon said Tuesday that the information in the email has been discussed with federal investigators. Fleming herself is a former FBI agent.

Gannon wouldn’t get specific about what else has been discussed, including whether lopsided absentee ballot results from the 9th District primary last May were a topic of conversation. Republican Mark Harris won 437 out of 456 absentee ballots in Bladen County in that race, which helped him defeat Congressman Robert Pittenger by 828 votes district-wide.

Dowless worked for Harris in the 2018 election cycle. He worked for Todd Johnson’s 9th District campaign in 2016. Although Johnson, now a state senator, came in third to Pittenger and Harris in that race, he won 221 of the 226 absentee-by-mail ballots cast in Bladen County.

Emails released by the state board indicate at least one other face-to-face meeting between board officials and federal investigators: A planned February 2018 meeting with an assistant U.S. attorney. Fleming also emailed with the State Bureau of Investigation, the records show.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman is overseeing the state-level criminal investigation. She said Tuesday that, at times, her inquiry has been a joint one with federal investigators, but that “right now I am working with SBI.”

Beyond that, she declined comment on federal involvement.

Freeman said she hopes to wrap her investigation in 30 to 60 days.

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