RALEIGH, NC (AP) — A local North Carolina grand jury on Monday raised its consideration of potential criminal charges against State Attorney General Josh Stein and two aides over an investigation into a political ad targeting Stein’s 2020 election opponent.
After hearing from an agent of the State Bureau of Investigation, the Wake County Grand Jury requested in writing that the Wake County District Attorney’s office file charges for consideration “against each and every” of three individuals, including Stein himself. .
The Democratic Attorney General, his 2020 campaign manager Eric Stern and current Justice Department chief of staff Seth Dearmin — a former Stein campaign manager — were identified in Monday’s “presentation” document signed by the jury foreman. They have not been charged with any crime.
Stein, a potential candidate for governor of 2024, slammed what he called a “nonsense investigation” in a statement.
The investigation stems from a State Board of Elections complaint filed in the fall of 2020 by Stein’s Republican opponent, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill. He accused Stein’s campaign of distributing a political ad that violated a 91-year-old libel law.
The O’Neill campaign said Stein’s commercial, accusing the Republican of failing to test more than 1,000 rape kits, was “false and derogatory” because police rather than prosecutors are responsible for testing rape kits. The office of Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman began the investigation in 2021.
Freeman, also a Democrat, said Monday that her office could present a possible indictment to the grand jury next month. But a ruling as early as this week by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals could derail the prosecutor’s push for prosecution.
Stein’s campaign committee has said the ad was truthful.
Freeman “continues her nonsense investigation into a campaign ad that is true of an election that has long been passed, using a 91-year-old statute that has never been used against any other candidate,” the Stein campaign wrote in a statement Monday. . “While the Attorney General is disappointed by this ongoing distraction, he remains focused on his work testing sexual assault kits and getting justice for assault survivors.”
Freeman has withdrawn herself from the case – citing her working relationship with O’Neill and Stein – and handed it over to a senior assistant in her office.
Stein’s campaign committee last week asked the appeals court for a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the state law as the commission and other plaintiffs attempt to label it unconstitutional. US District Judge Catherine Eagles refused to grant the warrant last week.
Dating back to at least 1931, the law makes it illegal to knowingly distribute a false “derogatory report” that could hurt a candidate’s election chances.
The felony for breaking the law carries a jail term of up to 60 days with a fine of up to $1,000, but someone with an otherwise clean criminal record would not serve a prison sentence if convicted. Any criminal charges against Stein or his aides could hurt the Democrat’s electoral prospects.
Hannah Schoenbaum is a member of the Corps for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national, not-for-profit service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on classified issues. Follow her on Twitter on twitter.com/H_Schoenbaum.