The Wake County grand jury “returned a presentment” Monday in connection with a controversial 2020 television ad run by Attorney General Josh Stein’s re-election campaign. It’s the first step toward potential indictments, according to the Wake County district attorney’s office.
“Under State law, misdemeanor offenses are considered in two phases. The next step in the case will be to send indictments to the Grand Jury,” according to a news release from the Wake D.A.’s office.
The presentment arrives as Stein continues to seek help from federal courts in blocking possible criminal charges against his campaign, the media company that prepared the ad, and the woman who appeared in it.
As of 6:30 p.m. Monday, the 4th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals had yet to act on Stein’s request for an emergency injunction. Stein had asked the court to issue a ruling last Friday.
The attorney general filed a federal lawsuit July 21. It asks for federal courts to declare N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163-274(a)(9) unconstitutional. The law creates a Class 2 misdemeanor crime for lying about political candidates.
Part of Stein’s suit involves blocking Wake D.A. Lorrin Freeman’s office from moving forward with any criminal charges connected to the disputed law. Freeman’s office has been investigating possible charges linked to the 2020 ad.
U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles rejected Stein’s request for a preliminary injunction on Aug. 9. Six days later, Eagles turned down Stein’s request to block her own ruling while the attorney general pursues appeals.
Freeman’s office has objected to Stein’s requests. Part of the Wake D.A.’s argument involves an approaching deadline for pursuing criminal charges. The controversial ad stopped airing in October 2020, so the state’s two-year statute of limitations for misdemeanor charges runs out soon.
Freeman recused herself from the investigation involving Stein’s campaign ad. Prosecutor David Saacks, who has worked for the Wake D.A.’s office since 2010, has been handling the case.
The dispute arose from North Carolina’s 2020 election for attorney general. Stein, the incumbent Democrat, faced a challenge from Republican Jim O’Neill, the Forsyth County District Attorney. Stein won re-election by just 13,622 votes out of 5.4 million ballots cast.
The two clashed during the campaign over rape kits used to help identify and prosecute offenders. Stein and O’Neill blamed each other for a backlog of untested kits.
Stein ran a TV ad, titled “Survivor,” featuring Juliette Grimmett, a sexual assault survivor who worked for Stein at the N.C. Department of Justice. At one point in the 30-second ad, Grimett criticized O’Neill.
“When I learned that Jim O’Neill left 1,500 rape kits on a shelf leaving rapists on the streets, I had to speak out,” Grimmett said in the ad. She is one of the plaintiffs in the federal case, along with the Stein campaign and the company that prepared the campaign ad.
O’Neill lodged a complaint to the N.C. State Board of Elections. He cited N.C. Gen. Stat. § 163-274(a)(9), which declares it unlawful, as a Class 2 misdemeanor, “For any person to publish or cause to be circulated derogatory reports with reference to any candidate in any primary or election, knowing such report to be false or in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity, when such report is calculated or intended to affect the chances of such candidate for nomination or election.”