The Kentucky Personnel Board voted Friday to launch an investigation into allegations that Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’ office allowed politics to play a role in deciding which employees to hire and whether Grimes had created a hostile work environment for employees of the State Board of Elections.
The investigation stems from a complaint State Board of Elections Executive Director Jared Dearing sent to a variety of government agencies, including the personnel board, the State Board of Elections and the Executive Branch Ethics Commission. The State Board of Elections responded to his complaint last month by reaffirming Grimes’ role as the chief elections officer in the state.
While questioning Dearing during his testimony Friday, the Personnel Board focused on the two elements of his complaint that fall under their jurisdiction: that a staff member in the Secretary of State’s Office used the state’s voter registration database to look up the party affiliations of prospective and current employees of the State Board of Elections and that Grimes and her staff had created a hostile work environment for Dearing and his staff.
Bradford Queen, communications director for Grimes, denied the allegations against Grimes and said the personnel board does not have authority over who gets access to the voter registration database.
“Any allegations that party affiliation has ever affected the hiring and personnel action of merit employees is unequivocally false and easily disproven,” Queen said.
He said Grimes is concerned that some details about the state’s voter registration system have been made public and that she has alerted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Dearing brought records that showed a staffer for Grimes looked up at least five employees on the voter registration database, including two while they were applying for a position at the State Board of Elections.
Merit employees are the government bureaucrats who are hired regardless of political affiliation. There are protections that prevent their party affiliation from affecting their employment with state government.
According to Stephen Amato, an attorney for the State Board of Elections, the Secretary of State’s Office used the voter registration database to perform a background check on the two employees that were being considered for a job. But Dearing pointed out that the official background checks for the two job applicants were returned a day before the secretary of state staffer looked up the two applicants.
The only information contained in the voter registration database that wouldn’t be covered in a background check are party affiliation and voting record, according to Thomas Stephens, the Secretary of the Personnel Cabinet. The Personnel cabinet is typically in charge of running background checks for executive branch staff.
“I cannot fathom any reason why anyone would need to access the voter database in the process of vetting someone involved in a merit job with the exclusive reason to determine their party affiliation,” Stephens said.
It is possible for the public to look up someone’s party affiliation if they know the person’s first name, last name and birthday.
Dearing said after the staffer looked up the party affiliations, she encouraged him to hire the job candidate who was a Democrat. He ended up hiring the Republican for the position, but hired the Democrat for a separate job. Dearing spoke highly of both candidates and said both are performing well in their positions.
Dearing and Grimes are both Democrats.
When the personnel cabinet asked Amato about the incident, he pointed out that the Democrat had not been hired over the Republican.
“I did not hear anything that suggested that he had evidence that a decision was made by the State Board of Elections to hire someone based on party affiliation,” Amato said.
Dearing also said there was evidence that staffers in the Secretary of State’s office had looked up current employees in the database. He said when a contractor was pulling the information on who has been looked up by Grimes’ staff, the contractor’s name appeared on the document.
Dearing said the contractor expressed concern over working in that kind of environment and cited it as an example of the hostile work environment Grimes has allegedly created at the State Board of Elections.
The Personnel Board also focused on a part of Dearing’s complaint in which he alleged Grimes called a family member of Dearing and accused him of not being a “loyal” employee. He said he comes from a family that is heavily involved in Democratic politics, so he took it as a threat.
“The threat was real, even if it was implied,” Dearing said.
Grimes has insisted the complaints over her use of the voter registration database are grounded in partisan politics. On Friday, Queen pointed out that all but two members of the personnel board were appointed by Republican Governor Matt Bevin.
Last year, the then-assistant executive director of the State Board of Elections, who was a Republican, filed a whistleblower lawsuit containing similar complaints.
Following Dearing’s allegations, the Republican Party of Kentucky was quick to call on Grimes to recuse herself from overseeing the 2018 elections.
“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 after the State Board of Elections reaffirmed her role.
Dearing dismissed that allegation.
“This is not about party politics, this is about the welfare of our system,” Dearing said. “If it does not work for Republicans now, it will not work for Democrats in the future.”
Brian Crall, chairman of the Kentucky Personnel Board, would not say when he thought the investigation would be concluded. He said he wanted to avoid the appearance of partisan politics.
“These kinds of things must not become political,” Crall said. “I have seen that in the past.”