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 asked in writing that the Wake district attorney’s office submit an indictment for consideration “against any and each” 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 Monday’s “presentment” document signed by the jury foreperson. They have not been charged with any crime.
Stein, a potential 2024 candidate for governor, lashed out in a statement at what he called a “nonsense investigation.”
The investigation stems from a State Board of Elections complaint filed in fall 2020 by Stein’s Republican opponent, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill. He accused Stein’s campaign of circulating a political ad that violated a 91-year-old libel law.
The O’Neill campaign said Stein’s commercial, which accused the Republican of letting more than a thousand rape kits go untested, was “false and derogatory” because police rather than prosecutors are responsible for testing rape kits. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman’s office began investigating in 2021.
Freeman, also a Democrat, said Monday that her office could present the grand jury with a possible indictment as soon as next month. But a ruling as early as this week from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could derail the district attorney’s push for prosecution.
Stein’s campaign committee has said the ad was truthful.
Freeman “continues to pursue her nonsense investigation over a campaign ad that is true from an election that is long since 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 continues to focus on his work to test sexual assault kits and get justice for survivors of sexual assault.”
Freeman has recused herself from the case — citing her working relationship with O’Neill and Stein — and gave it to a senior assistant in her office.
Stein’s campaign committee asked the appeals court last week to issue a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the state law while the committee and other plaintiffs seek to strike it down as unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles refused last week to grant the injunction.
Dating to at least 1931, the law makes it illegal to deliberately disseminate a false “derogatory report” that could harm a candidate’s chance of election.
The misdemeanor for violating the law carries a penalty of up to 60 days in jail with up to $1,000 in fines, but someone with an otherwise clean criminal record would avoid serving time if convicted. Any criminal charge against Stein or his aides could harm the Democrat’s electoral prospects.
Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/H_Schoenbaum.