Key figure in NC ballot probe sentenced in Greenville for benefit fraud

North Carolina

Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP)

GREENVILLE, N.C. (AP) — A key player in a North Carolina ballot fraud probe that led to a new congressional election was sentenced Thursday to six months in prison for obtaining illegal Social Security benefits while concealing payments for political work he performed.

Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., 65, of Bladenboro, had pleaded guilty to two counts in June on the day his federal trial was supposed to begin. He faced a maximum combined sentence of 15 years in prison for his offenses of theft of government property and Social Security fraud.

U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle also told Dowless he must pay $8,600 in restitution, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Raleigh, which prosecuted Dowless.

Dowless’ sentencing was delayed last week because he had been hospitalized that day, an attorney said. Dowless attended Thursday’s sentencing in Greenville.

The federal case was tangentially related to the ballot probe by the State Board of Elections and local prosecutors. Dowless and others still face state charges involving balloting during the 2016 and 2018 elections, with a possible trial by year’s end.

A document filed before his anticipated fraud trial on four counts said prosecutors 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 2018, he claimed he wasn’t working and had not worked for the past two years, the document said. He had previously applied for disability benefits and received them for several years, prosecutors said.

Dowless had been working in 2017 and 2018 in part for 9th Congressional District candidate Mark Harris, a Republican. 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, which was won by a subsequent GOP nominee, Dan Bishop.

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