Politics & Government

Another Kentucky elections staffer accuses Grimes of misusing voter data

From left, then-Assistant to the Director Matthew Selph, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and then-Executive Director Maryellen Allen at a meeting of the Kentucky State Board of Elections in Frankfort.
From left, then-Assistant to the Director Matthew Selph, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and then-Executive Director Maryellen Allen at a meeting of the Kentucky State Board of Elections in Frankfort. ddesrochers@herald-leader.com

The executive director of the Kentucky State Board of Elections sent a letter to the board Monday accusing Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes of chipping away at the checks and balances of Kentucky’s election system, and calling for an Executive Branch Ethics Commission investigation into the relationship between Grimes’ office and the State Board of Elections.

In a nine page letter that was sent to members of the State Board of Elections and the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, Jared Dearing accused Grimes of ordering staff to ignore requirements of a settlement the elections board made with the U.S. Department of Justice to clean up the state’s election rolls, gaining improper access to the state’s voter registration database, gaining improper access to information about poll workers, and creating a hostile work environment when Dearing raised his objections.

“I am not suggesting that the Secretary has, or plans to, manipulate the Commonwealth’s elections, however, the damage done is in the appearance of this ability and to the confidence the voting electorate must have in our elections being free and fair, unfettered by corruption and malfeasance,” Dearing wrote.

Dearing and Grimes are both Democrats. As secretary of state, Grimes is Kentucky’s chief elections official and is chairwoman of the State Board of Elections.

“The complaint is baseless and lacks a basic understanding of the constitutional role and duties of the chief election official and the chair of the board and its staff,” said Bradford Queen, Grimes’ communications director.

Grimes, who is considering running for either governor or attorney general next year, has made stronger security for elections a policy goal in her nearly seven-year tenure as secretary of state. Now, for the second time in two years, she is being accused of overstepping her authority and gaining improper access to the state’s election system.

Last October, the former assistant executive director of the State Board of Elections, Matt Selph, filed a whistleblower lawsuit accusing Grimes of many of the same issues raised by Dearing.

The complaint filed by Selph, a Republican, and the letter sent by Dearing are both rooted in allegations that Grimes has improper access to the state’s voter registration system. Dearing alleged that Grimes’s staff was using the database to look up the voting records of elections board staffers and job candidates.

Earlier this year, Grimes entered a settlement with the conservative group Judicial Watch after they filed a lawsuit claiming she was not properly cleaning Kentucky’s voter rolls. In his letter, Dearing said Grimes ordered him to stop complying with the consent decree.

Following the settlement, Dearing and his staff sent out 600,000 postcards to confirm the identity of registered voters who had not voted in the past six years. More than 100,000 had been returned when Dearing said he was ordered into Grimes’ office and told to stop scanning the returned cards.

Dearing said when he and assistant executive director Jennifer Scutchfield voiced concern about the legality of halting the process, he was told by Grimes’ staff to “slow-walk” the process.

“Neither AD Scutchfield or I complied with the demands to either ‘stop’ or ‘slow-walk’ this process,” Dearing wrote.

He said approximately 220,000 post cards, which help identify whether voters have died or moved away from their original place of registration, have been scanned to-date.

Dearing also said Grimes has given her office the ability to recruit and place poll workers across the state, a task previously handled by county-level political parties and boards of elections, and was given the names and addresses of all 15,000 poll workers in order to send them a thank you letter prior to a contentious election. Previous secretaries of state were not given that information.

“The legislators who created the laws that govern our elections placed a system of checks and balances that would allow no one individual or one political party to have an unfair advantage within the system,” Dearing wrote. “During Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’ term in office, many of these checks have been slowly chipped away.”

Dearing also accused Grimes of creating a hostile work environment by actively trying to undermine him as executive director. He said at one point, she even called a member of his family and “stated that I was not being loyal to her personally, that I was not doing what I was told and that I was being hostile towards her.”

Grimes’ hostility extended to some of the state’s county clerks, who were regularly disparaged by Grimes and her staff, Dearing alleged.

“It has been explained to AD Scutchfield and I that there are ‘good clerks and bad clerks,’ the inference being some are Democrats and others are Republicans,” he wrote. “If a clerk is deemed to be ‘too Republican’ or a clerk (is) unwilling to work with the secretary on her terms, we have been told to not work with these individuals.”

A special meeting of the State Board of Elections has been called for 2 p.m. Tuesday. The last time complaints were raised about how Grimes deals with the State Board of Elections, Selph and executive director Maryellen Allen were fired.

Prior to the meeting where he was fired, Selph had filed a complaint with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission and sent a letter to members of the State Board of Elections. The ethics commission has taken no action on Selph’s complaint.

Dearing said in his letter that he does not expect to remain in his position much longer.

“I am fairly confident that once I send this letter, any career I had or would have had as a public servant in government is over,” he wrote.

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