Politics & Government

Ethics opinion further complicates a 2019 campaign for Alison Lundergan Grimes

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes denies abuse of power allegations

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes denies abuse of power allegations by executive director of the State Board of Elections Jared Dearing Tuesday in Frankfort.
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Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes denies abuse of power allegations by executive director of the State Board of Elections Jared Dearing Tuesday in Frankfort.

An advisory opinion by the Kentucky Executive Branch Ethics Commission Monday could complicate a potential 2019 political campaign for Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.

The advisory opinion comes in response to complaints filed after it was revealed that Grimes’ staffers in the Office of the Secretary of State have access to voter registration data and information about precinct workers.

The commission warned that the Kentucky Board of Elections’ decision to grant Grimes’s staff access to sensitive voter data and to give her day-to-day oversight of the board’s staff means that Grimes can no longer rely on a prior opinion by the commission that said a secretary of state can run for statewide office while simultaneously serving as chairman of the State Board of Elections.

In 2010, the commission advised then-Secretary of State Trey Grayson that he could run for U.S. Senate without recusing himself from his role as chairman of the elections board.

On Monday, the commission warned that recent decisions by the State Board of Elections could change their opinion if Grimes runs for office in 2019. She has been considering a run for governor or attorney general.

“The change in circumstance discussed above may have implications in the event that a person holding the office of Secretary of State decides to file as a candidate for a future election while also serving as the Chair of the State Board,” wrote Christopher Thacker, the chairman of the Executive Branch Ethics Commission. All five members of the commission were appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican.

Grimes responded Tuesday by calling the opinion “highly inappropriate.”

“I think Executive Branch Ethics is attempting to try to justify their use of taxpayer dollars to have interference with this board; I think it’s an opinion of which the board should disregard,” Grimes said Tuesday during a meeting of the State Board of Elections. “I think it is highly inappropriate that an all-Republican appointed board by Governor Bevin, that they would endeavor into an area that is outside wholly of their jurisdiction. And it is complete pontification.”

The opinion could force Grimes, a Democrat, to step away from her duty as Kentucky’s chief elections officer if she wants to seek a new elected office, casting an additional shadow over a potential 2019 campaign.

Grimes is the first secretary of state to have access to the database, which the commission said grants her staffers access to a voter’s full date of birth, and potentially even their Social Security number, as well as information about precinct officers in every county.

Grimes’ staff previously also had the ability to amend the voter registration database, which conceivably allowed them to delete voters from the system and eliminate their ability to cast a vote. That was changed last October, when former assistant executive director Matt Selph noticed that Grimes’ staffers had the ability to alter the database, according to Luke Morgan, an attorney for the State Board of Elections.

Her staff now has read-only access to the database, Morgan said.

He also pointed out that Grimes does not have personal access to the voter registration system.

The ethics opinion is based primarily on a resolution the elections board passed at its August 28 meeting, which was called the day after State Board of Elections Executive Director Jared Dearing publicly raised concerns that Grimes was overstepping her authority as secretary of state.

The resolution “reaffirmed” Grimes role as chief elections officer in the state and contained a paragraph that said Grimes’ staff uses the Voter Registration System “up to, on, and after each election and throughout the regular course of business, to coordinate election inquiries and field complaints.”

It also said Grimes is granted “day-to-day oversight” of the regular operations of the State Board of Elections, something the ethics commission said wasn’t granted to her predecessors.

In the time since, Grimes has used the resolution to parry the suggestion that she has overstepped her role as chief elections officer. When she was asked about what had changed between herself and previous secretaries of state, Grimes mentioned upgrades in technology and electronic threats to election security.

Grimes has been awash in controversy in recent weeks. In addition to allegations that she overstepped her power, her father was indicted by a federal grand jury last month for allegedly making illegal contributions to her 2014 U.S. Senate campaign.