By Gabriella Borter
(Reuters) - The North Carolina Republican political operative at the center of an absentee ballot fraud scheme that led the state to order a rerun of a congressional election was arrested and charged with obstruction of justice on Wednesday, officials said.
The operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless, was charged with three felony counts of obstruction of justice, two counts of conspiring to commit obstruction of justice and two counts of possession of absentee ballots, according to court documents.
Allegations that operatives working for Dowless illegally collected, and sometimes filled in, absentee ballots on behalf of Republican Mark Harris' campaign emerged shortly after the Nov. 6 election. They caused the state to hold off certifying Harris' apparent narrow victory over Democrat Dan McCready.
The state Board of Elections, during four days of hearings last week, heard evidence of what election officials called a well-funded and well-organized campaign to tip the election for the state's 9th District in the U.S. House of Representatives, which stretches southeast from Charlotte.
The hearings ended with the board ordering a new election, with an official calling the first one an "absolute mess."
The months-long scandal became an embarrassment to President Donald Trump's Republican Party, which has accused Democrats without proof of encouraging voter fraud in races such as the 2016 presidential election.
Dowless, 63, has previously denied wrongdoing. His attorney, Cynthia Singletary, was not available to comment on Wednesday.
If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of approximately two years, Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said.
Four other people who worked for Dowless were each charged with one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice and one count of possessing absentee ballots.
"These indictments should serve as a stern warning to anyone trying to defraud elections in North Carolina," Kim Strach, executive director of the state election board, said in a statement on Wednesday. State officials will meet on Monday to set the date for a new election, she added.
Harris, who had appeared to win by 905 votes out of 282,717 ballots cast, said he would not make a second run for the seat. McCready does plan to run again.
Harris and his campaign officials have said they did not pay Dowless to do anything illegal. But Harris' son, a U.S. attorney, testified that he had warned his father of potential illegal activity by Dowless, causing elections officials to question whether Harris turned a blind eye to Dowless' scheme.
Following his son's testimony, Harris himself said a new election was needed.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York; editing by Scott Malone, Bill Berkrot and Jonathan Oatis)