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By GARY D. ROBERTSON, Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. — A political operative accused by North Carolina authorities of orchestrating an absentee ballot fraud operation in a 2018 congressional election pleaded not guilty Friday to separate federal charges.

Leslie McCrae Dowless Jr. of Bladenboro has been indicted on four counts of hiding from the Social Security Administration more than $100,000 in income for work performed for candidates during the 2018 election. Hiding the income allowed him to receive additional Social Security benefits to which he was not entitled.

The plea comes nearly 10 months after a federal grand jury issued the charges. Friday’s arraignment before U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle in Raleigh had been delayed several times, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plea sets the stage for a jury trial, but Judge Boyle did not immediately offer a trial date.

Dowless declined to comment after the brief hearing.

He was at the center of a state elections and criminal investigation probe into illegal ballot harvesting in the 9th Congressional District campaign. Dowless and others were indicted in state court in 2019. The 2018 congressional election in the south-central district was ultimately rerun.

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, whose office is prosecuting the state charges, predicted on Friday that a state trial for Dowless would be held this summer. The absence of jury trials during most of 2020 in Wake County court pushed back activity in the state case against him.

The federal indictment did not name the candidates Dowless worked with in 2018, but evidence presented to state officials showed he worked for Republican candidate Mark Harris. Witnesses told state officials Dowless gathered hundreds of absentee ballots from Bladen County voters with the help of his assistants.

Harris, a Southern Baptist minister, appeared to get the most votes in the November 2018 race, but the State Board of Elections ordered a new election. Harris did not run in the subsequent race, which was won by his successor as the GOP nominee, Dan Bishop. Freeman announced last summer that Harris would not face state charges.

Boyle said the federal counts against Dowless come with maximum prison sentences of five or 10 years, depending on the charge. Federal prosecutors said last year that Dowless was receiving more than $14,000 in disability and supplemental benefits above what he was actually entitled. He was approved to receive supplemental benefits based on a disabling condition in 2013, the indictment said.


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