Judge delays prison for ailing figure in North Carolina ballot probe

State - Regional

FILE – In this Dec. 5, 2018, file photo, Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. poses for a portrait outside of his home in Bladenboro, N.C. Dowless, a political operative already accused in state court of absentee ballot fraud during a 2018 North Carolina congressional election, now faces federal charges of fraudulently receiving Social Security benefits while getting paid for political work, prosecutors said Tuesday, April 21, 2020. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A judge on Friday delayed when the key player in an absentee-ballot fraud case in North Carolina must report to federal prison for crimes involving benefits fraud because of the defendant’s health issues.

Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. of Bladen County was supposed to report to a South Carolina prison by Dec. 1 to serve a six-month term, but his lawyer asked that it be pushed back to April 1 because of his expanding health problems. U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle granted the extension.

Dowless, who is in his mid-60s, had a stroke in August and learned earlier this month that he may have lung cancer, according to a federal court filing earlier this week. He needs time for follow-up medical appointments to determine his course of care, his lawyer wrote.

Boyle sentenced Dowless in early September after he pleaded guilty in June to obtaining illegal Social Security benefits while concealing payments for political work he performed.

The counts were tangentially related to a broader state probe into unlawful absentee ballot activities for the 2016 general election and the 2018 primary and general elections — activities in which authorities have identified Dowless as a primary figure.

Dowless is charged with 13 state counts in that case, including obstruction of justice, possessing absentee ballots and perjury.

A State Board of Elections inquiry into the 9th Congressional District election in 2018, when Dowless worked for then-Republican candidate Mark Harris, led the board to throw out the results and order a new election. No charges were filed against Harris, who didn’t run in the subsequent election.

During an appearance in Wake County Superior Court on Monday, Dowless rejected a plea agreement offered by District Attorney Lorrin Freeman that would have required him to serve one year in prison, half of which would run simultaneously with his federal term. A judge set a trial date for next August.

Freeman said in court that the plea offer would remain available until Nov. 30, presumably the day before Dowless would enter prison in Salters, South Carolina.

Freeman said in a phone interview late Friday that the deadline would remain in place. She said she may discuss with Dowless’ attorney whether a trial could now be held before his new April reporting date.

Dowless’ recent medical challenges were relayed during Monday’s court hearing to Superior Court Judge Keith Gregory, who asked that he and Freeman be kept informed moving ahead.

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