The political operative at the center of a Republican congressional campaign in North Carolina tainted by evidence of ballot fraud has been indicted by a grand jury on seven counts, a prosecutor announced Wednesday.

Leslie McCrae Dowless, who worked for Mark Harris, the Republican nominee in the state’s 9th Congressional District last year, was arrested and charged with three counts of felonious obstruction of justice, two counts of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and two counts of possession of absentee ballots, the Wake County district attorney’s office said.

The charges reflect a swift transition to the criminal phase of a sweeping investigation of mail-in ballot irregularities in the 9th District. They follow four days of hearings last week before the North Carolina State Board of Elections revealing voluminous evidence that Dowless led a scheme to tamper with absentee ballots in last year’s primary and general elections.

Following those hearings, North Carolina election officials ordered a new contest in the district, voting unanimously to throw out the November results between Harris and Democrat Dan McCready.

“This is a clear signal that we take seriously the public’s confidence in the electoral process and that we intend to pursue this case vigorously and see that justice is done,” Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said in an interview.

Dowless’ lawyer, Cynthia Singletary, had no comment, according to the person who answered the phone at her law office.

Harris, an evangelical minister from Charlotte, had led by 905 votes in unofficial returns. He announced Tuesday that he would not run in the new election. The district runs along the South Carolina line from Charlotte to rural eastern North Carolina.

Harris could still face legal problems. Freeman said she will go “wherever the evidence leads us” and plans to examine “who was aware of and helped finance these fraudulent absentee ballot activities” – and whether, in addition to Dowless, anyone else tried to obstruct either the criminal or state board investigations. Freeman said the obstruction charges against Dowless stem from his alleged participation in the ballot scheme itself but also from evidence that he attempted to interfere with witnesses.

Evidence surfaced in last week’s hearings that Harris structured his campaign so that it didn’t directly pay Dowless, avoiding public disclosure of the payments and potentially shielding Harris from accusations that he was aware of the scheme.

Harris has claimed no knowledge of Dowless’ methods and said there were no red flags before he hired him in 2017. But he was contradicted during last week’s hearings by his son John, an assistant U.S. attorney, who testified that he warned his father in conversations and emails in 2017 against hiring Dowless because he suspected the operative had used illegal tactics to win votes in a previous election.

During testimony the next day, Mark Harris claimed not to recollect a conversation with another son about whether the emails would be presented as evidence during the hearings.

Facing potential perjury charges for that testimony – and days of potentially damaging cross-examination about his own role in the ballot scheme – Harris abruptly called for a new election. He said ballot fraud had sufficiently tainted the outcome in November to warrant a new election.

Also during last week’s hearings, the elections board’s general counsel, Josh Lawson, rebuked Harris’ lawyers for failing to turn over those emails between Harris and his son John in a timely way, as required by a board subpoena for all campaign communications related to Dowless.

Freeman would not say whether that failure could lead to an obstruction charge against Harris, but she said “that is still very much a matter of investigation.” She added: “This is an investigation that has grown in scope and continues to grow in scope.”

She also would not say whether a perjury charge is possible against Harris. Such charges are unusual in state court in North Carolina, especially when a witness corrects his testimony, as Harris did last Thursday.

The indictments drew praise from voting rights advocates and from officials at the state elections board.

“These indictments should serve as a stern warning to anyone trying to defraud elections in North Carolina,” said the board’s executive director, Kim Westbrook Strach. “Today is a new and better day for elections in our state.”

The indictment of Dowless names two co-conspirators, Rebecca Thompson and Kelly N. Hendrix, who have not been charged. It also describes three voters whose ballots were illegally tampered with.

Hendrix, who testified last week that she illegally collected and signed ballots for Dowless, wept on the witness stand as she described how she began helping him after he had given her rides to her job at a Hardee’s fast-food restaurant. Dowless occasionally gave her gas money while she helped him collect ballots, she said.

Her testimony vividly displayed the pervasive economic hardship of eastern North Carolina, which was devastated by Hurricane Florence weeks before the November election – and where many of Dowless’ associates were drawn to him because he was kind to people in need.

Freeman said whether those who participated in the ballot scheme cooperate with investigators will be factored in her office’s decisions to prosecute. She said her paramount concern is “trying to restore public confidence in that area of the state in the election process.”

Wednesday’s charges relate to the 2016 general election and 2018 primary, according to the indictment. But Freeman said she will also examine evidence of election fraud in the 2018 general election – the focus of the State Board of Elections’s hearings last week, she said.

“We have not yet begun our investigation into the 2018 election, knowing that the state board was doing a thorough investigation and fully anticipating that we would gain access to that,” she said. “We have met with the state board to begin gaining access to that. We expect that to take several months.”

Dowless was charged with low-level felonies, which under North Carolina statutes are punishable with sentences ranging from six months to two years, depending on prior records, Freeman said. Court records show he was convicted of fraud, perjury and passing a worthless check in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The case has been scheduled for a late March court appearance. Dowless was held on $30,000 bond and ordered to have no contact with anyone named in the indictment.

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