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Wake DA: No immunity deals for 9th District hearings

February 19, 2019

None of the witnesses in this week’s 9th Congressional District hearings has immunity deals in a parallel criminal investigation, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Tuesday.

That includes Lisa Britt, who admitted to multiple felonies under oath during her testimony Monday to the State Board of Elections. She may eventually face charges, but Freeman said people “who accept responsibility early on and cooperate generally fare better over the long haul.”

Britt testified that she collected dozens of absentee ballots, forged her mother’s signature with her permission and backdated witnessing signatures on absentee ballots. All carry potential charges, and Britt testified to them voluntarily, without an attorney in the room for her.

“I’m sure, like any cooperating person ... there is some hope at the end that her cooperation will be taken into consideration,” Freeman said.

“I don’t think you can excuse criminal behavior,” she added.

Though dozens of witnesses were subpoenaed in the elections board’s hearings, each who has testified has been released from that subpoena when taking the stand. They’re told their testimony is under oath but voluntary, and that they may leave at any time.

That’s because state law (General Statutes 163A-1391) gives blanket immunity for crimes a person admits if they are compelled to testify. The protection is, State Board of Elections Chairman Robert Cordle said, stronger in some ways than the Fifth Amendment.

The concept is similar, but witnesses don’t have to invoke the amendment. McCrae Dowless, the central figure in an alleged ballot scheme in and around Bladen County, refused to testify voluntarily before the board Monday.

His attorney said he would testify if compelled, but the state board declined.

Freeman said her office had agents in Bladen County on Tuesday. She said her inquiry has largely focused on the 2016 general election, which saw similar, if less widespread, allegations of absentee ballot fraud, and the 2018 primary.

Freeman said she expects the State Board of Elections will eventually forward its findings from the 2018 general election to her. Board staff interviewed more than 170 people in that inquiry, Executive Director Kim Strach said Monday, and is laying out its case on absentee ballot fraud to the board in public hearings this week.

The board may order a new election as a result, but any criminal prosecution would be handled by state prosecutors or by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which has not said whether it’s actively investigating election irregularities in Bladen and Robeson counties.

Freeman’s office is handling the Bladen County investigation to avoid potential conflicts of interest from the local district attorney. She said she envisions “a phased approach” of taking findings before a grand jury.

“Clearly, I anticipate there will be people who, in the end, will face criminal prosecution,” she said.