BLADENBORO, NC (WECT) - Months before his absentee activities would make national headlines, Leslie McCrae Dowless was being followed by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.
On May 3, 2018, the SBI watched as Dowless met at a Bladenboro convenience store with two operatives working for him during the 2018 primary.
Those activities, according to search warrants obtained by WECT and a coalition of other news outlets, were the reasoning behind the SBI’s request for a search warrant for the transaction histories of several Bladen County ATMs.
“Information about the transactions conducted at the CashPoints ATMs is valuable to the completion of the criminal investigation,” an affidavit attached to the Dec. 5, 2018 warrant reads.
The search warrants were unsealed on Tuesday, March 12, and received by the media coalition Wednesday morning.
In addition to the ATM records, the warrants show state and federal investigators were interested in McCrae Dowless’ personal banking records, the bank records of his political action committee, Patriots for Progress, and his personal cell phone records.
According to the documents, the SBI’s criminal investigation of Dowless began on Feb. 28, 2018, about a month after Bladen County District Attorney Jon David recused himself.
Over the next several months, Criminal Specialist D.S. Faircloth conducted the investigation into election fraud, which according to the warrants was initiated by District Attorney N. Lorrin Freeman.
The SBI wanted a list of transactions from the Bladenboro CashPoints ATM from 8:15-9 a.m. on May 3, 2018, as well as those from an Elizabethtown CashPoints ATM from 10:35-10:55 a.m. on the same day. The state also wanted video surveillance from the ATMs.
On Oct. 17, 2018, Faircloth and FBI Special Agent James Kaylor interviewed Tonia Gordon, who worked for Dowless.
Gordon, according to Faircloth’s affidavit, was paid $5 by Dowless for every completed absentee ballot request form she brought back to him, and another $5 for every completed ballot.
Faircloth and Kaylor also interviewed Kelly Hendrix, who testified at the state board of elections hearing in February about her work for Dowless.
Those interviews, along with the surveillance conducted by Faircloth and another SBI agent, were given as the reasoning the state needed the ATM records.
The warrant was signed by Superior Court Judge Graham Shirley, and sealed by the same on Dec. 20.
A month before the NCSBE would consider the case, the SBI executed search warrants for Dowless’ cell phone records.
The request was made for all text messages and incoming and outgoing calls from Jan. 1, 2016 to Jan. 15, 2019.
The SBI also wanted all of the voicemails, payment information, per-call measurement reports, GPS data and cell tower “pings” for “as far back as this data is kept.”
In the affidavit for that warrant, Faircloth details the Gordon and Hendrix interviews, but also the interview of Matthew Mathis. Mathis had been known to work for McCrae Dowless during the 2016 general election when Dowless ran for Bladen County Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor.
Mathis told investigators Dowless paid him $112.50 for every 20 absentee ballots he brought back, and that he was promised a “bonus” if certain political candidates won their elections.
Prior to the interview, Mathis said he had spoken by phone to Dowless, and Dowless wanted to meet with him and his girlfriend Caitlyn Croom so he could coach the couple on what to say to investigators. Mathis said a lot of the conversations he and Dowless had about the absentee operation were by text message.
Faircloth and another investigator also interviewed Croom, who also said she was paid $112.50 per 20 completed absentee ballots returned, and that a lot of her communication with Dowless was by text message.
These interviews, Faircloth’s affidavit states, were the SBI’s reasoning for seizing Dowless’ phone records from Metro PCS. The documents indicate those records were returned by T-Mobile, and Faircloth submitted them to the SBI case file.
Finally, investigators sought the bank records from Wells Fargo for Patriots for Progress, which Dowless founded and operated through at least 2016, and through which Mark Harris made a “down payment” on Dowless’ services in April 2017.
In his affidavit, Faircloth details the Gordon, Hendrix, Mathis and Croom interviews, as well as adding that he “interviewed multiple individuals that were employed by Dowless in both the 2016 general election and the 2018 primary and general elections which gave similar accounts as to their dealings with McCrae Dowless.”
Faircloth also details findings based on the campaign finance records of Bladen County Commissioner Ashley Trivette.
Trivette, who won her seat on the commission in 2016, paid Dowless $3,350 for “Get out the vote” as well as paying Patriots for Progress $1,400.
Faircloth’s affidavit says the 2016 third quarter filing for Patriots for Progress does not reflect those payments. The PAC was terminated by the state in Sept. 2017 for failing to comply with campaign finance reporting requirements.
“Your affiant believes there is probably cause to show violations of the North Carolina State Election and Campaign Finance Laws have occurred,” the affidavit reads.
The warrant for the Wells Fargo records was signed on Jan. 17, on the same day as the warrant for Dowless’ phone records.
The Jan. 17 search warrants were sealed on the same day they were executed, with the order stating “that to publicly disclose the basis for the search warrant, or the inventory of those matters recovered from this location might hamper or impede this investigation.”
On Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway overturned that order, stating that the public’s right to know overruled the motion to seal the records.
Dowless, Mathis and Croom were all indicted on Feb. 26 along with two others for felony charges relating to the absentee ballot scheme. They have since been arrested, and Dowless was released on bond.