RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A local North Carolina grand jury on Monday advanced its consideration of possible 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 a State Bureau of Investigation agent, the Wake County grand jury requested in writing that the Wake County District Attorney’s Office file an indictment for consideration “against anyone” of three people, including Stein himself.
The Democratic attorney general, his 2020 campaign manager Eric Stern, and current state Justice Department chief of staff Seth Dearmin, a former Stein campaign manager, were identified in the document by “ presentation” of Monday signed by the head of the jury. They have not been charged with any crime.
Stein, a potential 2024 gubernatorial candidate, criticized what he called a “nonsensical 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 running a political ad that violated a 91-year-old libel law.
Related story: Stein’s campaign seeks to block ad investigation that the law allows
O’Neill’s campaign said Stein’s ad, which accused the Republican of leaving more than a thousand rape kits untested, was “false and disparaging” because police rather than prosecutors are to blame of testing the breach kits. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman’s office began investigating in 2021.
Freeman, also a Democrat, said Monday that his office could present a possible indictment to a grand jury as early as next month. But a ruling as soon as this week by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could derail the district attorney’s push for a prosecution.
Stein’s campaign committee has said the ad was truthful.
Freeman “continues to pursue his nonsensical investigation into a campaign ad that is true of an election that was passed a long time ago, using a 91-year-old statute that has never been used against any other candidate,” he said. write Stein’s campaign in a statement. Monday. “While the Attorney General is disappointed by this continued distraction, he remains focused on his work to test sexual assault teams and achieve justice for sexual assault survivors.”
Freeman recused himself from the case, citing his working relationship with O’Neill and Stein, and gave it to a senior assistant in his office.
Stein’s campaign committee asked the appeals court last week to issue a preliminary injunction block enforcement of the state law while the committee and other plaintiffs try to declare it unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles last week declined to grant the injunction.
Dating back to at least 1931, the law makes it illegal to knowingly spread a false “derogatory report” that could harm a candidate’s chances of being elected.
The misdemeanor charge of violating the law carries a penalty of up to 60 days in jail with up to $1,000 in fines, but someone with a clean criminal record would avoid serving time if convicted. Any criminal charges against Stein or his aides could hurt the Democrat’s election prospects.