RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina judge on Monday set a trial date next summer for a political operative accused of ballot fraud dating to 2016, including a 2018 congressional election whose results ultimately got tossed out.
Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. appeared in Wake County court, where he faces 13 criminal counts related to activities from the 2016 and 2018 elections, including charges of obstruction of justice, possessing absentee ballots and perjury. He pleaded not guilty to the charges through his attorney and rejected a plea agreement offer.
Superior Court Judge Keith Gregory scheduled trial for Aug. 29, after the defendant completes a federal prison sentence expected to start Dec. 1. Dowless pleaded guilty in June to obtaining illegal Social Security benefits while concealing payments for political work he performed. The charges are tangentially related to the ballot fraud accusations.
In Monday's court appearance, Dowless declined to accept the plea agreement offered by District Attorney Lorrin Freeman. She said it would have required him to serve six additional months behind bars after he completed his federal prison term.
She said the offer on the election-related counts would remain on the table until Nov. 30 should Dowless change his mind. After that date, Gregory told Dowless, he risked substantial prison time if he were to be convicted at trial, adding, “Your exposure is significant.”
Freeman said after the hearing attended by Dowless and his lawyer that he would have had to plead guilty to 12 of the 13 charges in accepting the plea offer.
Dowless and others were charged in 2019 on state charges related to the 2016 general election and the 2018 primary and general elections.
Dowless worked in 2017 and 2018 in part for 9th Congressional District candidate Mark Harris. Witnesses told state officials that Dowless, with help of his assistants, gathered hundreds of absentee ballots from Bladen County where he lives. Those workers testified they were directed to collect blank or incomplete ballots, forge signatures on them and even fill in votes for local candidates.
Harris appeared to get the most votes in the November 2018 race, but the State Board of Elections ordered a new election. Harris did not run in the subsequent race, which was won by his successor as the GOP nominee, Dan Bishop. No charges were filed against Harris.
Dowless attorney Drew Sprague told Gregory he was concerned about meeting trial deadlines because of Dowless' medical condition. Dowless, who arrived in court using a cane, had a mini-stroke recently, and he learned that some spots on his lung may be cancer, according to Sprague.
Gregory told Sprague to keep him and Freeman informed on his condition. Sprague said after the hearing that Dowless had no comment.
Freeman said that while her office is mindful of Dowless' health, she said it's important that the case advance because the “state has a compelling interest in this and in voter integrity and election integrity,” noting that it dates to the 2016 election cycle.
“We are now five years past the time of that election,” Freeman told reporters. “We’re ready to move forward in the matter and try and bring it to some resolution.”
During the hearing, it sounded to several in the courtroom that Sprague had pleaded guilty on behalf of Dowless to some of the 13 counts. But Freeman said afterward it was a “misstatement” and that Dowless had pleaded not guilty to all of the counts. Sprague confirmed later that was his client's intent.
Gary D. Robertson, The Associated Press