RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Attorney General Josh Stein (D) on Tuesday called the criminal investigation into a campaign ad he ran in 2020 “troubling” after a grand jury in Wake County requested that prosecutors present them with an indictment to consider.  

The ad in question ran during Stein’s re-election campaign two years ago against Republican Jim O’Neill, who is the district attorney in Forsyth County.  

On Monday, a grand jury in Wake County issued a presentment against Stein and two people who worked on his campaign but did not charge anyone. They could consider whether to take that step as soon as next month. 

“I’m all for truthful ads. But, it is very troubling when one DA on behalf of a friend DA can bring a case against a candidate. It’s troubling,” Stein said Tuesday. 

In the ad, a sexual assault survivor criticizes O’Neill’s handling of sexual assault evidence kits. The backlog of those untested kits had been a key issue in the campaign. Juliette Grimmett said in the ad that O’Neill “left 1,500 kits sitting on a shelf.” 

As CBS 17 reported at the time, O’Neill filed a complaint with the NC State Board of Elections, calling the ad “defamatory” and said it would be up to police agencies to test those kits, not the district attorney. 

The Wake County District Attorney’s Office is now handling the investigation. District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, who is also a Democrat, said she has recused herself from the matter.  

The investigation centers on whether Stein and others violated a state law regarding making false statements about candidates, which is a misdemeanor. The presentment also mentions Seth Dearmin, Stein’s chief of staff, and Eric Stern, who was Stein’s campaign manager in 2020. They also have not been charged with any crimes.  

“Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman, at the bidding of her good friend O’Neill, resurrected this case and conducted a new investigation, which she continues to pursue it, using a 91-year-old law statute that has never been used against any other candidate in the history of this state,” said Stein. “The State Board of Elections investigated that matter for months. They concluded the ad was not false and that the matter should be closed.” 

Freeman and O’Neill did not respond to requests for comment following Stein’s statements on Tuesday. 

Separately, Stein has been pursuing a case in federal court trying to get the law declared unconstitutional.  

Gov. Roy Cooper (D) also weighed in on the matter Tuesday, calling it “an unprecedented repression of free speech that should trouble everyone.”  

“The idea that the government can criminally prosecute a person for expressing a legitimate political opinion runs counter to the First Amendment and threatens anyone who wants to criticize a public official,” he said. 

Stein has been rumored to be planning a run for governor in 2024 when Cooper can no longer seek re-election due to term limits. Stein has not confirmed he will seek that office.  

Republican Senate leader Phil Berger commended the Wake County District Attorney’s Office for moving forward with the case.  

“The ad itself rises to a level that folks have not seen before and we’ve seen some really rough political ads,” said Berger. “If somebody runs a political ad that they know is false, then there ought to be some accountability.”