RALEIGH, N.C. - With a new election ordered in North Carolina's disputed congressional race, a key question remains unanswered: Who could face criminal charges after a state elections board hearing exposed evidence of ballot fraud?
Among those in potential legal trouble are the central figure in the scandal, political operative Leslie McCrae Dowless, and some of those working for him. According to testimony heard by the board, they illegally gathered voters' absentee ballots and, in some cases, filled in votes and forged signatures.
The Republican candidate for whom Dowless was working, Mark Harris, has denied knowledge of any illegal practices by those involved with his campaign. But he, too, could come under legal scrutiny.
Suspicion of ballot tampering
Harris led Democrat Dan McCready by just 905 votes out of about 280,000 cast last fall in the district along the southern edge of the state. But the state refused to certify the outcome because of suspicions Dowless tampered with mail-in absentee ballots in rural Bladen County. Under state law, only voters and their close relatives can handle completed ballots.
On Thursday, the five-member elections board unanimously ordered a new election after Harris abruptly reversed course and called for one. No date has been set.
McCready said Friday that he was ready for another election. Harris has not said whether he intends to run.
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman in Raleigh said her office has been investigating potential Bladen County voting irregularities for over a year. The investigation has been expanded to include last year's election, she said.
In an email Friday, she said she expects the state elections board to submit its investigative files to her office, and "we will determine what, if any, supplemental investigation is required."
She said she hopes to present findings from her investigation to a grand jury in the next month.
Federal prosecutors also could pursue charges under a law against interfering with an election for federal office, North Carolina elections board attorney Josh Lawson said. The U.S. attorney's office in Raleigh has refused to say if an investigation is underway.
Dowless has denied wrongdoing through his attorney. He refused to testify at the elections board hearing without a promise of immunity from prosecution.
Dowless' stepdaughter, Lisa Britt, could face criminal charges after admitting under oath that she collected dozens of ballots and forged signatures and dates while working for him.
As for the GOP candidate himself, Harris admitted writing personal checks to Dowless in 2017, a potential legal violation if they weren't reported by his campaign. Also, he could be in legal jeopardy over his testimony during the board hearing.
On Thursday, Harris was on the stand when a lawyer for the state elections board pressed him repeatedly over whether his attorneys had turned over crucial emails. McCready's lawyer, Marc Elias, reminded Harris that he was under oath.
'Culture of corruption'
Harris' lawyer asked for a break, and Harris returned to the stand more than an hour later to read a statement admitting he misspoke, saying ill health, including two recent strokes, had caused confusion and memory problems. He then agreed that his apparent election victory was tainted and a new election was needed.
"What we saw this week in the hearing was a culture of corruption. We saw emails that were hidden from the board under subpoena. We saw lying on the stand," McCready said Friday.
Asked if he was satisfied at where the investigation stands, the Democratic candidate responded: "I imagine that the district attorney's office and the U.S. attorney will probably be picking things up."
And if Harris runs again, McCready said, "he is going to need to ask for forgiveness from the voters."