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North Carolina ballot probe figure pleads to benefit fraud

June 21, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this Dec. 5, 2018 file photo, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. poses for a portrait outside of his home in Bladenboro, N.C. The key figure in a North Carolina investigation into ballot fraud in a 2018 congressional race pleaded guilty on Monday to federal charges he unlawfully accepted Social Security benefits when concealing other money he earned. Dowless Jr., entered the plea before U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle for theft of government property and Social Security fraud, according to court records. Dowless' trial had been scheduled to begin Monday, June 21, 2021. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 5, 2018 file photo, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. poses for a portrait outside of his home in Bladenboro, N.C. The key figure in a North Carolina investigation into ballot fraud in a 2018 congressional race pleaded guilty on Monday to federal charges he unlawfully accepted Social Security benefits when concealing other money he earned. Dowless Jr., entered the plea before U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle for theft of government property and Social Security fraud, according to court records. Dowless' trial had been scheduled to begin Monday, June 21, 2021. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 5, 2018 file photo, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. poses for a portrait outside of his home in Bladenboro, N.C. The key figure in a North Carolina investigation into ballot fraud in a 2018 congressional race pleaded guilty on Monday to federal charges he unlawfully accepted Social Security benefits when concealing other money he earned. Dowless Jr., entered the plea before U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle for theft of government property and Social Security fraud, according to court records. Dowless' trial had been scheduled to begin Monday, June 21, 2021. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP, File)

GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) — A key figure in a North Carolina investigation into ballot fraud in a 2018 congressional race pleaded guilty on Monday to federal charges he unlawfully accepted Social Security benefits when concealing other money he earned.

Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., 65, entered the plea before U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle for theft of government property and Social Security fraud, according to court records. Dowless’ trial had been scheduled to begin Monday.

His sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 23, with the charges carrying a combined maximum sentence of 15 years, according to a release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for eastern North Carolina. Dowless still faces state charges involving the 2016 and 2018 elections. Dowless declined to comment after leaving the hearing.

A federal grand jury indicted Dowless last year. A pretrial document filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office said it had evidence showing Dowless received at least $135,000 in checks for his work on state and federal campaigns during 2017 and 2018. At the time he applied for Social Security retirement benefits in July 2018, he claimed he was not working and had not worked for the past two years, the document said. He had previously applied for Social Security disability benefits and received them for over five years, prosecutors said.

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Dowless had been working in 2017 and 2018 in part for 9th Congressional District candidate Mark Harris. Witnesses told state officials Dowless gathered hundreds of absentee ballots from Bladen County voters with the help of his assistants. 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. A district attorney announced last summer that Harris would not face state charges.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said Monday in a phone interview that she anticipated Dowless’ criminal case in state court would now move ahead given Monday’s federal plea, with a goal of a trial by year’s end.