Politics & Government

Beshear appoints independent counsel to investigate allegations against Grimes

Attorney General Andy Beshear has appointed an independent counsel to examine allegations against Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, including that her office misused voter data and potentially violated Kentucky’s personnel laws.

In a letter to Garrard County Attorney Mark Metcalf, Beshear’s office appointed the Garrard County Attorney to represent the Commonwealth in examining allegations made by Jared Dearing, the executive director of the Kentucky State Board of Elections this August.

“As we discussed, the Office of the Attorney General has not reached any conclusions on any allegation in this matter, and your appointment should in no way suggest there are or are not actionable allegations,” the letter from assistant deputy attorney general Michael Wright says.

Among those allegations are claims that Grimes’ staff used the voter registration database to look up the party affiliation of merit staffers while they were applying for a job at the state board of elections and to look up the party affiliations of current state board of elections staff. Dearing also accused Grimes of creating a hostile work environment, telling him to slow-walk a process ordered by the Department of Justice and overstepping her constitutional authority as chief elections officer and chairwoman of the State Board of Elections.

The investigation will focus on Dearing’s letter to the State Board of Elections, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission and the Kentucky Personnel Board. The Executive Branch Ethics Commission has already released an advisory opinion and the Personnel Board has opened an investigation into Dearing’s allegations.

“Given the nature of the allegations and to ensure a fair process for everyone, we appointed an independent counsel who is reviewing the letter and its contents,” said Deputy Attorney General J. Michael Brown.

Grimes has denied all of Dearing’s allegations. In a statement, Bradford Queen, Grimes’ communications director said the Secretary of State’s Office will cooperate with the investigation.

“This is no surprise, given the request made and the Ethics Commission’s opinion on how General Beshear should do his job, saying he should not investigate potential political opponents,” Queen said. “The State Board of Elections and the Secretary of State’s office will be fully cooperative as we continue to work with our county boards of elections toward another successful election in November.”

Beshear has not investigated a fellow constitutional officer during his term as Attorney General. He and Grimes are Kentucky’s only two Democratic constitutional officers.

Beshear had previously explored the possibility of investigating Republican Gov. Matt Bevin amid a controversy over whether Bevin purchased a house from one of his friends at below market value, but backed off after received an advisory opinion from the Executive Branch Ethics Commission that he couldn’t run for governor if he opened the investigation.

Beshear has already launched his 2019 campaign for governor, and Grimes has indicated that she is interested in running for the position as well. By appointing an outside attorney, Beshear is potentially avoiding an ethics opinion that he’s violating the state’s ethics code by investigating a political rival.

Grimes has denounced the allegations and the subsequent investigations into her activity as Secretary of State as political. In her response to the Kentucky Personnel Board, her office noted that most of the board is appointed by Bevin. She did the same with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission.

“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 when the allegations first surface.

But that declaration has been complicated by the fact that Dearing, and now Beshear, are both Democrats. Metcalf, the Garrard County Attorney, is a Republican.

Dearing’s allegations have thrust Kentucky’s elections board into chaos just months before the Nov. 6 elections. While members of the board have said they have full confidence in the elections system, the past two meetings of the board have been derailed by Dearing’s allegations. Last week, the Kentucky County Clerks’ Association sent out a letter expressing support for Dearing.

It has been a difficult two months for Grimes. Along with the allegations that she overstepped her authority with the State Board of Elections, her father was indicted in September for making illegal campaign contributions to her 2014 Senate campaign.