The State Board of Elections stood behind Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes Tuesday as Republicans called for a federal investigation of allegations that Grimes abused her power as Kentucky’s chief elections officer.
The bipartisan board voted 4 to 0 to pass a resolution “reaffirming” Grimes role as chief elections officer and chairwoman of the board, but it also took no action against Jared Dearing, the executive director who brought the allegations forward in a nine-page letter he sent Monday to the board and the Executive Branch Ethics Commission.
Board members Ben Chandler, a Versailles Democrat, and Stephen Huffman, a Lexington Republican, were absent.
“Today’s action by the board was a strong action to reaffirm the role of the chair and the chief election official and to say with confidence that it is most appropriate for the chief election official and the chair and her staff to be able to have the tools that they need to do the job,” Grimes said.
Grimes, a Democrat, “vigorously” disputed Dearing’s allegations that she had asked him and assistant executive director Jennifer Scutchfield to do things they found to be “inappropriate, unethical and potentially illegal,” saying he had a “fundamental misunderstanding” of her role as chief elections official. She also called Dearing’s allegation that she created a hostile work environment “fabrications.”
“Mr. Dearing’s family members and I are great friends,” Grimes said in response to the accusation that she told one of his family members that he was not being “loyal” to her.
Dearing, who is a Democrat, married into a family with a long history in Democratic politics. His father-in-law was pardoned by former Gov. Steve Beshear after he was found guilty of making illegal cash contributions to a 1993 Jefferson County judge-executive’s campaign.
Dearing said in his letter that he did not expect to remain in his position much longer and left in the middle of a nearly three-hour closed session held by the Board of Elections. He declined to comment as he left.
This is the second time Grimes has been accused of overstepping her authority. In 2017, former assistant executive director Matt Selph submitted a letter to the Executive Branch Ethics Commission and the State Board of Elections containing similar allegations. He was later fired and filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the state.
Grimes, who is considering a run for either governor or attorney general in 2019, said the allegations were political responses to her being outspoken about election security, even though the allegations have been made by employees both political parties.
“We’re not going to participate in the partisan politics, nor do we look at the role of chief elections official and chair of this board as one that we’re going to allow others to be able to make unfounded allegations about partisan politics towards,” Grimes said.
Earlier Tuesday, the chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky called for a federal investigation into the allegations against Grimes.
“Kentuckians deserve to know their elections are being conducted fairly and without bias and, from the looks of Secretary Grimes’ actions, that may not be the case this fall,” said GOP chairman Mac Brown. “In what is sure to be a closely contested election, every vote will count and, if Secretary Grimes intends to have her finger on the scales, she needs to be stopped.”
Tuesday’s meeting of the elections board almost didn’t happen at all.
Two Republican members of the board protested the 2 p.m. start time of the meeting, questioning whether there was a proper 24-hour notice required by Kentucky’s Open Meetings Act.
“I just feel like if we take action today we are opening up the board to litigation,” said DeAnna Brangers, a Republican member of the board.
Grimes said she opposed pushing the meeting back two weeks, noting that the November elections are almost two months away and saying “the functioning of the state board of elections is at issue right now.”
Instead, Grimes and two Democrats on the board voted to push the meeting back to 3:04 p.m., which was 24 hours after members of the board received an email about the meeting. When they returned, Grimes said she felt that all of the requirements of the Open Meetings Act had met and quickly moved the meeting into executive session over the objections of Brangers and board member Joshua Branscum.
Brangers and Branscum eventually voted for the final resolution. When asked if she believed Dearing’s allegations, Brangers would only say “I feel it was a very healthy discussion going forward.”
Selph, a Republican, and Dearing accused Grimes of improperly accessing the state’s voter registration database, which contains voters’ names and addresses, precinct, gender, political party, zip code, date of birth, date of voter registration, and five-year voting history.
Dearing’s letter alleged that staffers were using the data to look up the voting records of current employees and job candidates at the State Board of Elections. Grimes said she was within her rights to access the system, calling it a tool for the secretary of state’s office that previous administrations didn’t need.
“It is necessary and required,” she said.
Dearing also accused Grimes of ordering him and Scutchfield to stop complying with a a settlement reached in a federal court case to clean Kentucky’s voter rolls, which Grimes denied.
“We were not about to take, under my watch, under my administration, any adverse action to be removing voters short of the deadline that is prescribed by state and federal law before this upcoming federal election,” Grimes said.
Before Grimes took office, the secretary of state’s office would send a postcard to people who had not voted for two election cycles to make sure they still lived at the address where they registered. If the post card bounced back, the state listed them as inactive. After a period of time, they were purged from the rolls.
Dearing said that when he resumed that practice under the settlement agreement, Grimes called him into her office and ordered him to stop. He said when he questioned the legality of her order, her staff told him to “slow-walk” the process.