A private detective is scheduled to stand trial Aug. 14 on five felony counts of intimidating poll workers and interfering with an election because of his alleged behavior inside the Phelps voting precinct in remote eastern Pike County during the Democratic primary on May 17, 2016.
The detective, Keith D. Justice, 51, was employed by Kentucky Senate Minority Leader Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, who faced an aggressive primary challenger in a race with combined campaign spending of nearly $820,000. Jones won re-election that day, defeating Pikeville lawyer Glenn Martin Hammond. There was no Republican candidate in the general election.
In an interview this week, Jones declined to say what Justice was doing at the Phelps precinct on Election Day, but he denied that his campaign tried to interfere with anyone’s right to vote.
“I can guarantee you of that,” Jones said. “Anything past that, I can’t go into. I’m not gonna comment on it until Mr. Justice has had his day in court.”
According to an indictment handed down last June by the Franklin County grand jury, Justice entered the Phelps precinct — where he was not registered to vote — and intimidated precinct officers Brenda Smith, Mirhonda Page, Jenny Kender and Geroldine Coleman, interfering with their ability to conduct the primary.
The state attorney general’s special prosecutions office, which is pursuing the case in Franklin Circuit Court, declined this week to offer more information about the incident. Each of the five counts that Justice faces is a Class D felony carrying up to five years in prison if he is convicted.
“I don’t know what his motive was, to be honest with you,” Pike County Clerk Rhonda Taylor, whose office filed the criminal complaint against Justice, said this week. “Some of our poll workers were detained by him, so we contacted law enforcement. I don’t think I’m allowed to say any more about it than that right now.”
Justice, who retired two years ago as a sergeant in the Kentucky State Police Division of Commercial Vehicle Enforcement, now runs a detective agency in Pikeville. He declined to comment for this story, referring questions to his attorney, Robert Wright.
Wright said Jones sent the detective to the Phelps precinct on Election Day as part of his paid duties for Jones during the Senate campaign.
“He had been hired by Mr. Jones to look into alleged election irregularities in some of the precincts out there,” Wright said.
“I’m not at liberty to say specifically what was alleged to have happened (in the precinct),” Wright said. “Mr. Justice does have a different view of things than the attorney general’s office does. The way we see it, Mr. Justice — his actions that day had no effect on the validity or the veracity of the election results. The election was reported. The results were certified.”
Jones said he hired Justice last year to investigate the theft of some of his campaign signs. Jones said he paid the detective out of his own pocket rather than use publicly reported campaign funds after being told by the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance that such a payment plan would be acceptable. KREF officials confirm having such a phone call with Jones on June 15, 2016, the day after Justice’s indictment was reported in the news media.
Jones declined to comment on Justice’s criminal case, other than to say it “was something of a shock.”
“He was not in the precinct or acting on my behalf when he did what he did,” Jones said. “He obviously saw something that concerned him. Anything else beyond that, you’ll have to ask his attorney.”
Jones denied that his campaign tried to interfere with anyone casting a ballot. The final returns weren’t even close, he said. Jones defeated Hammond by a vote total of 9,527 to 3,870.
“We had no reason to do anything,” Jones said.