Politics & Government

Pike voters say Democratic leader’s detective trailed, questioned them

Keith Justice. Keith Justice Private Investigations.
Keith Justice. Keith Justice Private Investigations.

Pike County voters say they were followed and interviewed during the May 2016 Democratic primary by a private detective employed by Kentucky Senate Minority Leader Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, who defeated a challenger that day.

“He was introducing himself as a state voting inspector,” said Robert Mapes, 56, of Freeburn. “I’ve never heard of such a thing, but I figured he was legitimate. He had a badge and a gun.”

Jones on Wednesday referred questions about the episode to his attorney, J. Guthrie True. True said the detective, Keith D. Justice, had been assigned by Jones to monitor voting in remote eastern Pike County for evidence of election fraud or other problems that should be reported, but he was not supposed to take any actions himself.

“As you know, mountain politics can be a nasty business,” True said. “On Election Day, all he was supposed to do was keep an eye on things and search out anything that looked like it was out of order. If there is any truth to these allegations, then he went beyond the scope of his employment.”

Justice, 51, is charged with five felony counts of intimidating poll workers and interfering with the primary because of his alleged behavior inside the Phelps voting precinct. The Pike County clerk said Justice improperly “detained” her poll workers while they were trying to conduct the election.

Justice is scheduled to enter a plea in that case Aug. 18 in Franklin Circuit Court, his attorney, Robert Wright, said Wednesday. Justice retired two years ago as a sergeant in the Kentucky State Police Division of Commercial Vehicle Enforcement. He now runs a Pikeville detective agency.

Apart from the allegations in the criminal case, two men say Justice followed them around eastern Pike County as they drove their neighbors to vote in the 2016 primary. Justice asked people for their names and the names of their associates and questioned them about vote-buying, the men said.

Mapes said he stopped at his Freeburn home for lunch after driving several car loads of elderly or otherwise isolated voters to cast their ballots. Justice knocked on his front door, entered, flashed a badge and introduced himself as a state voting inspector, Mapes said. Justice wore a holstered handgun on his belt, Mapes added.

“He pulled out a notebook and said, ‘I need the names of every voter you hauled to the polls today to make sure you weren’t buying votes,’” Mapes said. “I turned out my pockets to show him I didn’t have any money for anybody or from anybody. I’m not breaking the law. I ain’t going to jail for nobody!”

“After he seen that everything was legitimate, he left me alone. But he didn’t have any right to be in my house in the first place. I checked it out later, and he made it up, there’s no such thing as a state voting inspector,” Mapes said.

The Kentucky Board of Elections does not employ investigators, spokesman Bradford Queen said Wednesday. Reports of suspicious election activity or election fraud are forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement agencies, which work with the board’s Kentucky Election Integrity Task Force, Queen said.

Another Pike County man, Jacky Darrell Smith, 65, said Justice tailed him on Election Day while he carried primary voters to the polls. The detective never approached him directly, Smith said, but he questioned at least two of the women he transported after they left his vehicle.

“He was asking people, ‘What’s Jacky doing up here?’” Smith said. “He was just being arrogant. Most people probably would have gone home if they had someone following them like that, but I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wasn’t breaking any laws.”

On Wednesday, Wright said he knew nothing about any alleged Election Day behavior by his client outside of the Phelps precinct.

“This is the first I’ve heard of these allegations,” Wright said. “I’ve been involved in this case for 15 months now. I’ve reviewed the evidence, I’ve seen the grand jury testimony, and this has never, ever been mentioned to me by anyone, anywhere.”

It’s disturbing that the state Senate’s top Democrat employed a detective facing multiple felony charges related to interfering with an election that the senator was in, said Tres Watson, spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky.

“Politics in East Kentucky has a reputation for being rough and tumble, but this is really beyond the pale,” Watson said. “If any of this was done at the behest of the Senate Democratic leader, it raises questions about Ray Jones’ ability to lead that caucus.”

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics