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Four people plead guilty in North Carolina election probe into 2016 and 2018 elections

RALEIGH, North Carolina — Four people pleaded guilty Monday to misdemeanors for their role in mail-in voting fraud in rural North Carolina during the 2016 and 2018 elections. The convictions stemmed from an investigation that has in part resulted in an overhaul of congressional elections.

Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway accepted the plea agreements in Wake County Court, which resulted in no jail time or active jail time. Cases against six other defendants remained pending, with hearings scheduled until the end of next month, Wake District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said.

The 10 defendants, according to indictments submitted in 2019, had a common involvement with Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., a longtime political operative in rural Bladen County.

Dowless has also been charged with more than a dozen state charges, with his case due to go to trial last month. He rejected a plea deal and was looking forward to his day in court, according to a friend. But he died in April after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Freeman said at the time that the prosecution of the other cases would continue.

Dowless worked in the 2018 congressional race for then-Republican nominee Mark Harris, who appeared to have received the most votes in the general election for the 9th district seat in south-central North Carolina.

But allegations against Dowless have surfaced, and testimony and other information revealed at a State Board of Elections hearing described him as leading an illegal “ballot harvesting” operation for the US general election. 2018 in Bladen County. In it, according to testimony, Dowless and his aides collected hundreds of mail-in ballots from voters offering to put them through the mail.

Some workers said they were asked to collect blank or incomplete ballot papers, forge signatures on them and even fill in ballots for local candidates. It is generally against the law in North Carolina for anyone other than the voter or a family member to handle someone’s completed ballot.

The election committee voted unanimously to order a new election for the 9th district. No charges were brought against Harris, who did not run in the following election won in September 2019 by Republican Dan Bishop. The state’s investigation also led to accusations of similar mail-in voting activity in Bladen for the 2016 general election and 2018 primaries.

Those who will be in court on Monday – Rebecca D. Thompson; Tonia Marie Gordon; Ginger Shae Eason; and Kelly Hendrix – all pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess mail-in ballots. They all received suspended prison sentences, probation and 100 hours of community service.

Each of the four had originally been charged with conspiracy to commit a felony obstruction of justice and unlawful possession of an absentee ballot belonging to someone else.

Freeman described the plea deals as appropriate, identifying the defendants as local residents who met Dowless and agreed to help. Hendrix, who was indicted for the 2016 and 2018 elections, met Dowless while working at Hardee in Bladen County, according to Freeman.

“Mr. Dowless was really the ringleader in organizing all of this,” Freeman told the judge. money here and there.” Most election-related prosecutions are handled by Freeman, as the county attorney containing Raleigh, the state capital.

The district attorney said Gordon, who was charged in connection with the 2016 general election, told investigators that Dowless paid him $100 for 20 completed absentee ballot application forms and $5 for each ballot. completed mail-in ballot that she had collected. Collecting application forms is not necessarily illegal.

Hendrix’s attorney, Pete Wood, told Ridgeway the plea deal was a “good outcome” for his client: “Why did she do what she did? Because she was friends with Mr. Dowless… that doesn’t excuse him.

The prosecution of the defendants has been delayed largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has slowed court proceedings. Freeman also waited for a federal case against Dowless to be resolved.

Dowless pleaded guilty in June 2021 to obtaining illegal Social Security benefits while concealing payments for political work he did. He had worked for the Harris campaign for part of the time under review by federal prosecutors. He was sentenced to a six-month prison term which he never served when his health deteriorated.

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