A Republican operative in North Carolina who’s facing criminal charges related to the alleged harvesting of election ballots was simultaneously ripping off the Social Security system, federal prosecutors say.
The Justice Department indicted Leslie McCrae Dowless this month on four federal criminal counts alleging that he knowingly concealed his income and employment status from the Social Security Administration even as he brought in tens of thousands of dollars from his political work in the Tarheel State.
That work has already landed Dowless in major legal jeopardy. He was arrested in early 2019 and charged with five criminal counts including conspiracy and obstruction. Later that year, Wake County prosecutors charged him with additional counts including conspiracy, obstruction, and perjury. He has denied wrongdoing on all counts.
Dowless’ attorney did not respond to a request for comment on the federal charges filed this month. The Justice Department declined to comment.
The charges in North Carolina stem from Dowless’ alleged role in a widespread scheme that included the forgery of signatures, dates, and even votes themselves on North Carolina ballots, and a system of payments to Dowless’ employees to collect absentee ballots and ballot request forms.
That scheme was largely undertaken on behalf of Republican House candidate Mark Harris, who prevailed in the initial election by fewer than 1,000 votes. The North Carolina Board of Elections voted unanimously not to certify the results in light of the ballot harvesting allegations. It subsequently ordered a new election to fill the seat. Harris withdrew from the race, and Rep. Dan Bishop subsequently beat Democrat Dan McCready in a special election in September 2019.
As Dowless worked on Harris’ behalf—illegally, authorities say—he was also collecting Social Security checks for which he was not eligible, federal prosecutors allege. According to the indictment, Dowless, then aged 62, applied for Social Security retirement benefits in mid-2018. He “stated he did not expect to work in 2018 and had not worked in the two years prior to his application,” prosecutors say.
In fact, he had already received more than $63,000 in the first half of the year from his work for two different political campaigns, prosecutors say, nearly four times the annual income limit for Social Security retirement eligibility.
According to prosecutors, this isn’t the first time Dowless received federal money to which he was not entitled. In 2014, the Social Security Administration overpaid Dowless more than $5,000 in disability benefits, which should not have been received due to his additional outside income.
Two years later, he certified to the Social Security Administration that “he remained disabled and did not receive income beyond his SSI benefits.” Those benefits picked back up, and Dowless continued receiving them until at least November 2018. In all, prosecutors say, he collected more than $14,000 in federal financial benefits as a result of his misrepresentations to Social Security officials.
Dowless is set to be arraigned before a federal judge next month.