Politics & Government

Grimes files suit to block law stripping her of power, calling it politically-motivated

5 reasons Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is being investigated

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is under investigation by three different agencies for these five things.
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Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes is under investigation by three different agencies for these five things.

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes filed a lawsuit Monday against a new law that removes much of her authority over the State Board of Elections, calling it a “politically-motivated effort to target her personally” that has created chaos in the State Board of Elections ahead of the May 21st primary election.

She asked Franklin Circuit Court to grant a temporary and permanent injunction against House Bill 114, saying it violates constitutionally-mandated requirements for separation of powers, contains vague language and was not properly passed by the legislature.

“Unless the court invalidates and enjoins the enforcement of HB 114, the primary will be overseen pursuant to an unconstitutional law, the State Board of Elections will continue to operate in contravention of HB 114, chaos, confusion and uncertainty surrounding the election will exist, and the secretary of state will have no meaningful ability to discharge her duties,” wrote Daniel O’Gara, an attorney with Dinsmore & Shohl in Louisville.

In the 20 page lawsuit, O’Gara makes the argument that the bill was a politically motivated attempt by the legislature to restrict the power of a member of the executive branch based on “inaccurate and unverified media reports.” He was referencing a three-part series published by the Lexington Herald-Leader and ProPublica that showed Grimes had amassed unprecedented authority over the State Board of Elections and used it to push through a contract with a political donor and allowed her staff to search hundreds of people in the state’s voter registration database without providing a reason.

“This is what happens when Democrats lose,” said Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown. “They sue. It’s a pattern and people are sick of it.”

The law removed the secretary of state as the chairwoman of the State Board of Elections and made her a nonvoting member. It also added two retired county clerks, one Democrat and one Republican, to the board. It was the sixth time that laws governing the State Board of Elections have been changed since it was formed in 1972. Originally, the board consisted of two members and the secretary of state.

O’Gara argued the bill violated a clause in the state constitution that calls for a separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government. “The General Assembly has unreasonably interfered with the powers of executive branch (sic) by impeding the ability of the Secretary of State, as the Commonwealth’s designated ‘chief elections official,’ and the State Board of Elections to effectively discharge their duties to administer and enforce the Commonwealth’s election laws,” he wrote.

Thayer, who pushed for passage of the bill and was named a defendant in the lawsuit, dismissed the separation of power claims.

“It doesn’t matter what she thinks our motivation was,” Thayer said. “The legislature makes the laws and she has to abide by them.”

The lawsuit also takes issue with language regarding the secretary of state’s access to the voter registration system. Under the new language, people who improperly use the system could be found guilty of a misdemeanor.

Grimes, a Democrat, has said no one on her staff ever misused the voter database. The Herald-Leader and ProPublica found that employees in the secretary of state’s office used the voter registration system to look up political rivals, state investigators and a range of political operatives.

Lillie Ruschell, a spokeswoman for Grimes, has said all searches were performed at the request of the media or the public and Grimes’ attorneys have said the searches were used as part of background checks on job applicants. The office has no procedure for recording why a search of the system is conducted.

The lawsuit comes as an independent counsel is preparing a report on a variety of allegations made against Grimes, including claims her office has inappropriately handled sensitive voter roll information. The investigator, appointed by Attorney General Andy Beshear, is also looking into complaints of inappropriate contracts and compliance with a federal consent decree governing Kentucky’s efforts to keep accurate records of registered voters. The Executive Branch Ethics Commission and the Personnel Board are conducting their own investigations of a range of issues, including whether Grimes’ office inappropriately searched current and former employees as well as job applicants to determine their political affiliation.

In the lawsuit, O’Gara said language that makes improper use of the voter registration system a Class A misdemeanor is too vague because it doesn’t define “improper” and says someone is guilty if they knowingly use the system outside of their “prescribed duties of election administration.”

O’Gara also argues that the title of the bill, “An act relating to elections and declaring it an emergency,” was not relevant to the subject matter and that Thayer did not properly state why the bill should have an emergency clause, which allowed it to take effect as soon as it was signed by Gov. Matt Bevin. Most laws approved earlier this year won’t take effect until this summer.

When describing the events that led up to the lawsuit, O’Gara said that on April 25, the staff of the State Board of Elections asked Grimes for a list of the duties she had previously done but would not do now under the new law. O’Gara cited this as a sign that there is “continued confusion” over the law.

The State Board of Elections has met twice since Grimes was removed as its chairwoman. Grimes did not attend the first meeting, but did attend the second. During her appointed time to speak in the meeting, she questioned whether the board was stable enough to handle the election, given that Executive Director Jared Dearing had made a request to hire more people.

“The answer to that is yes,” Dearing responded. “The staff that we currently have are incredibly dedicated, they are incredibly conscious of elections, they are experienced ...”

In addition to Thayer, the lawsuit names as defendants Rep. Myron Dossett, R-Pembroke, who sponsored the bill; Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester; House Speaker David Osborne, R-Prospect; and the two newly-appointed members of the State Board of Elections.

This is the second lawsuit filed against the bill. The Libertarian Party of Kentucky filed a lawsuit because the bill did not eliminate language that moved up the filing deadline for political organizations, claiming it took away the party’s ability to get on the ballot in Kentucky in 2019.

Grimes office did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment.