Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr., the key player in a North Carolina absentee ballot fraud investigation that led to a new congressional election, has died.
His daughter, Andrea Dowless Heverly, wrote that her father “passed away peacefully” on Sunday morning, according to a social media post. She had been diagnosed with an advanced form of lung cancer and died at her daughter’s home in Bladen County. Her friend Jay DeLancy told The Associated Press in a brief interview that Dowless was in her 60s. years.
The political operative was set to go on trial this summer on more than a dozen state criminal charges related to absentee voting activities for the 2016 general election and the 2018 primary and general election. A half dozen others were also indicted.
Witnesses told state officials that Dowless, with the help of his assistants, collected hundreds of absentee ballots from Bladen County in 2018. Those workers testified that they were ordered to collect blank or incomplete ballots, forge signatures on them and even complete votes for local candidates.
The results of the 2018 general election for the 9th congressional district were ultimately thrown out, and the State Board of Elections ordered a new vote for the seat, following an investigation.
Dowless was working on the 2018 congressional race for then-Republican candidate Mark Harris. No charges were filed against Harris, who did not run in the subsequent election.
Dowless was later indicted on charges related to the 2016 election and the 2018 primary.
Dowless’s health had become an issue while he was receiving a six-month prison sentence for federal crimes related to benefits fraud that was tangentially related to the larger state investigation.
A federal judge pushed back Dowless’s reporting date from last December to April 1 after his defense attorney said Dowless suffered a stroke in August and learned about a possible cancer diagnosis in the fall.
Dowless’ federal attorney filed another motion in March requesting that it be sealed “because of the inclusion of confidential health information.” The Bureau of Prisons never reported that Dowless was in custody.
State and federal attorneys for Dowless did not immediately respond to emails Sunday seeking comment. But with Dowless’s death, the absentee voting case against him is now moot.
Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said legal delays caused by COVID-19 contributed to the inability to bring Dowless to trial sooner.
While expressing condolences to Dowless’s family, Freeman said Sunday that his office would move forward with the prosecution of other defendants, even though Dowless had been seen as the head of the investigation.
“Every other case, to some degree, stemmed from what the state thought was their master plan and their coordination,” Freeman told the AP. She said that each individual case would be evaluated before deciding how to proceed.
Dowless refused to accept a plea deal on the state charges last summer. The charges against her included obstruction of justice, possession of absentee ballots and perjury.
DeLancy, who saw Dowless last week, said Dowless “wanted a chance to defend himself against the state’s charges” and turned down the plea deal “in hopes of having his day in court.”
Dowless was “a man who was quick to trust and even love others for his acts of service,” DeLancy said in a text message.
Dowless pleaded guilty last June in federal court to obtaining illegal Social Security benefits while concealing payments for political work he performed.