Politics & Government

NAACP president says he asked Grimes’ office to search voter rolls for education board

Grimes staffer denies misusing Kentucky voter registration system

State Sen. Damon Thayer explains a bill that would make it a crime to misuse information contained in the Kentucky voter registration system. Mary Sue Helm, director of elections for the secretary of state, told lawmakers she has never done that.
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State Sen. Damon Thayer explains a bill that would make it a crime to misuse information contained in the Kentucky voter registration system. Mary Sue Helm, director of elections for the secretary of state, told lawmakers she has never done that.

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Alison Lundergan Grimes

The office of Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has found an explanation for why one of her staffers searched for information about members of the Kentucky Board of Education in the state’s voter registration database.

The additional information comes a little more than a day after the State Board of Elections publicly released details about those searchers and hundreds of others, and more than a month after the Lexington Herald-Leader and ProPublica first reported that employees of Grimes had used the voter registration system to look up political rivals, state investigators and a range of political operatives.

The news organizations also found that Grimes has gained unprecedented power over the elections board, detailing how she pushed through a $150,000 contract to a cybersecurity consultant that state employees had worried was unqualified, but whose CEO had donated to Grimes’ campaigns. The reporting also showed Grimes and then-assistant secretary of state Lindsay Hughes Thurston had instructed elections board staff to delay acting on a federal consent decree aimed at cleaning the state’s voter rolls.

Late Thursday night, a spokeswoman for Grimes provided the Herald-Leader with a statement from Raoul Cunningham, president of the Kentucky NAACP, that said he had requested information about the school board from Mary Sue Helm, director of elections for the secretary of state, on May 10 because of Gov. Matt Bevin’s April 24 appointments to school board. Those appointments included Bevin’s former communications director and his former secretary of Education and Workforce Development.

“As the president of the NAACP, I have a vested interest in the integrity of the composition of all boards across the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Cunningham wrote. “I am appalled by the recent baseless allegations by the media that have been leveled at the secretary of state, her staff and the office — especially concerning the request of publicly available information regarding members of the Board of Education.”

The search also would have come after Bevin’s administration recommended a take-over of Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, on April 30.

Helm originally denied looking up members of the school board to the Courier-Journal, a denial spokeswoman Lillie Ruschell later explained by saying Helm did not know who was on the school board and that she just looked up whoever she was asked to search.

The office does not customarily search voting rolls on behalf of the public, has no policy governing that activity and did not keep records of who asked for such information, Ruschell said Friday.

Cunningham said the secretary of state’s office contacted him recently to make sure he had asked Helm to look up members of the school board. He said he made the request because he was concerned about the make-up of the school board as debate raged about the possible JCPS takeover and charter schools.

“We were trying to see what was going on,” Cunningham said, adding that it wasn’t until after he got the information that he discovered the Kentucky Board of Education is not required to be bipartisan.

Raoul Cunningham, of Louisville, Ky., president of the Kentucky State Conference of the NAACP, center, prepares to speak while standing in front of a statue of Jefferson Davis with Brenda Martin, of Ashland, Ky., first vice president of the Boyd-Greenup County branch of the NAACP, right, and Marcus Ray, of Elizabethtown, Ky., president of the Hardin County branch of the NAACP, at the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort, Ky., Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. Demonstrators and speakers gathered at the Capitol Rotunda calling for the removal of the Jefferson Davis statue from the capitol. Alex Slitz aslitz@herald-leader.com

Grimes has denied any wrongdoing, asserting that she needs access to the voter registration system as the state’s chief elections officer and that her employees only used the system to look up people when requested by the public or the media. Her office has slowly produced documents to defend searches done by her staffers.

For example, Helm’s claim that she uses the database to verify addresses when candidates file for office matches up with searches she did of House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook; Rep. Regina Huff, R-Williamsburg; and Rep. Angie Hatton, D-Whitesburg.

A call for poll workers on May 14 might also help explain why Thurston, who is now a district judge, searched hundreds of people, many of them state workers, between May 16th and May 17th.

Some of the explanations, though, haven’t added up, and there’s been no explanation for some searches.

On July 31, Helm looked up former Democratic Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen. When explaining the search, Ruschell presented a document from late January 2018 showing Luallen signed as a witness for her nephew’s magistrate race. The race ended in a primary on May 22 because there was no Republican opponent.

Mary Sue Helm, director of administration and elections in the Office of the Secretary of State, testified about House Bill 114 during a meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on State and Local Government at the State Capitol. Matt Goins

There has been no explanation, though, for why Thurston searched the entire Executive Branch Ethics Commission at a time when they were investigating Grimes’ office.

Lawyers for the secretary of state and State Board of Elections have said the office searched two potential candidates for a job at the elections board as part of a standard background check. State Board of Elections Executive Director Jared Dearing has said Thurston encouraged him to hire the Democratic candidate over the more qualified Republican candidate.

Officials representing Grimes have also said the entire elections board staff was search to ensure the office was bipartisan, as required by law.

The Kentucky Personnel Cabinet has said it is wrong to look up the party affiliation or voting history of any applicant for a nonpolitical state job.

Daniel Desrochers has been the political reporter for the Lexington Herald-Leader since 2016. He previously worked for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in Charleston, West Virginia.