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Judge: W.Va. Governor’s Family Coal Company Must Turn Over Financial Info

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James C. Justice III, left, watches his father’s inauguration as governor. He has assumed control of some Justice family companies. Photo: West Virginia Governor's Office

A federal judge has ruled that a coal company controlled by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s family must turn over financial information and make its employees available for questioning.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger granted a motion submitted last month by U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart seeking additional information and the ability to depose Justice Energy Co. employees.

Federal prosecutors are seeking more information on the ability of the coal company to pay a $1.23 million court fine. They are asking for a list of all real estate, bank accounts, vehicles and other financial information.

Justice Energy, a company now run by Gov. Justice’s children James C. Justice III and Jillean Justice, was slapped with the fine after repeatedly failing to pay Virginia-based James River Equipment $150,000 for mining equipment, service and parts. The company sued in 2013 and won.

Two years after being ordered to pay the debt, and after repeatedly failing to show up for court hearings, Berger held Justice Energy in contempt of court, ordering the company to pay $30,000 per day.

In September, Justice Energy lost an appeal of the civil contempt fines.

According to the request granted Wednesday, Stuart said Justice Energy may not be able to pay the fine, based on conversations he had with the company’s attorneys. But he said he needs more information.

The judge’s order gives Justice Energy until Jan. 25 to provide all requested financial information and requires the firm to make employees available for depositions by mid-Feburary.

An attorney for the Justice family companies did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A review of court documents last year by the Ohio Valley ReSource found at least five cases in which judges ruled that Justice family companies failed to pay suppliers for goods or services. When compelled by courts to pay, the companies either refused or failed to meet agreed upon payments.

In all five cases the courts authorized U.S. marshals to seize assets from the Justice family companies’ bank accounts to recover the debts. However, in some cases, officials discovered the bank accounts were empty or closed.

This story was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Kentucky Legislature Passes Bill Stripping Grimes of Authority Over State Board of Elections

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Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. Photo: Alex Slitz/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS via Getty Images

The bill takes multiple steps to scale back the level of control Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has asserted over the board in recent years.

The Kentucky legislature passed a bill on Thursday that strips Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes of her authority over the State Board of Elections, restructures the SBE and makes misusing the voter registration system a misdemeanor crime.

The bill takes multiple steps to scale back the level of control Grimes has asserted over the SBE in recent years, including removing the secretary of state as the chair of the board. The secretary will become a nonvoting member of the board, and the board will now include two former county clerks — one from each party.

The bill now awaits the signature of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.

ProPublica and the Lexington Herald-Leader published stories this year detailing the secretary of state’s office’s use of the voter registration systemto look up information on political rivals, as well as the range of misconduct allegations against Grimes being explored by state investigators.

Records released last week confirmedthat staff in her office had looked up those named in the reports by ProPublica and the Herald-Leader, including members of a state ethics agency currently investigating Grimes’ conduct.

Last October, the attorney general’s office appointed a special counsel to investigate ethics complaints made against Grimes, involving both a no-bid contract given to a campaign donor as well as an allegation she’s intentionally failed to comply with a federal consent decree dealing with the state’s voter rolls. Grimes, a Democrat, is also under investigation by two state agencies: The Executive Branch Ethics Commission is investigating similar claims, and the Personnel Board is investigating allegations that Grimes has created a hostile work environment and that she inappropriately searched the voter registration system to discover the political affiliation of potential and current employees.

There are no specific dates set for investigators to issue their findings, although the special counsel is expected to release his initial report in the coming weeks.

The Republican lawmakers behind the legislation — which passed largely along party lines — said they had grown to fear Grimes was exerting undue influence over state election matters. While the secretary of state is statutorily the “chief elections officer,” the process of helping counties facilitate elections has long been primarily managed by the SBE.

“In her last year in office, we needed to take significant steps to ensure our elections are protected, and to send a message to the next secretary of state — be it a Republican or a Democrat — that these types of shenanigans will not be tolerated,” said Sen. Damon Thayer, a Republican and the author of the bill.

In a statement released after the bill’s passage, Grimes said she was considering taking legal action to prevent the bill from going into effect, claiming it would dangerously centralize authority with the governor’s office. The only expansion of the governor’s authority under the bill is officially appointing two new board members, a role he already fulfills for the six current members who are selected by the parties.

Kentucky’s county clerks, who manage elections at the local level and operate largely independently from the state, widely supported the bill. Clerks from both parties have been critical of Grimes’ alleged interference in election policy.

Julie Griggs, a Democrat and the clerk in McCracken County, called the bill a “good start” that will be “helpful” to the clerks. “I’m glad the vote went the way it did,” she said.

The Republican clerk in Kenton County, Gabrielle Summe, who is also the president of the statewide clerks association, said that the bill will help the clerks have more of a voice at the SBE. “We were ignored [by Grimes], and because she could control the State Board of Elections, we couldn’t even have a relationship with them,” she said. “We’ll move forward with better communication and a clearer process.”

Grimes has denied all of the accusations against her. She has said her staff used the voter registration system for legitimate purposes and has “at all times” followed the law. She has called the accusations of inappropriate searches, hostile treatment and abuse of power filed by two SBE employees — one Democrat and one Republican — “political.”

Some number of Democrats have sided with Grimes, and they called the legislation “vengeful,” saying it would “weaken” election systems. Democratic Rep. Angie Hatton called it a “big baby bully bill.”

During her time in office, Grimes has seized more authority over the SBE than any other secretary before her — dictating when board meetings were to be held, shifting the location of meetings from the SBE office to the Capitol, approving all records requests releases by the SBE and asking the board to pass a resolution granting her day-to-day authority over the SBE. Under her guidance, the secretary of state’s office also received access to the voter registration system for the first time. None of these moves violated existing state law but were in stark contrast to her predecessors’ hands-off treatment of the SBE and its employees.

“There was a situation where a politician identified a place in the law where it didn’t say they could do something and it didn’t say she couldn’t, and she drove a truck through that,” said Tres Watson, a Republican strategist in Kentucky and former communications director for the Kentucky GOP. Watson said the bill restores the prior power balance and called Grimes “the first truly partisan secretary of state that anyone can really remember.”

“When someone behaves like that, it opens the door to others,” he said.

Grimes, in her statement and in a tweet, said the bill would create “chaos.” Griggs and Summe took issue with the claim.

“I can’t imagine what that’s supposed to mean,” said Griggs, who said the bill would not change how voters cast their ballot or the way clerks manage elections. “We do our jobs and we do them well, and I don’t see that this is going to cause chaos in the least bit.”

This article was originally published by ProPublica.

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How a Western Pennsylvania Police Shooting Sparked a Political Movement

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Protestors gather outside PNC Park after marching across the Roberto Clemente bridge during a evening rush hour march in downtown Pittsburgh Friday, June 22, 2018. They are protesting the killing of Antwon Rose Jr. who was fatally shot by a police officer seconds after he fled a traffic stop late Tuesday, in the suburb of East Pittsburgh. Photo: Gene J. Puskar/AP Image

In Pittsburgh, Summer Lee and Leon Ford are part of a new
brand of local politician whose influence is growing.

On the afternoon of June 19, 2018, a gold Chevy Cruze pulled up to row houses in Braddock, Pennsylvania, and stopped. One of the car’s passengers, seventeen-year-old Zaijuan Hester, opened the rear window and traded fire with an unknown figure on the street. Also in the car was seventeen-year-old Antwon Rose, Jr. The two shooters—Hester and the person on the street—littered the ground with .40- and .45- caliber shells. Bullets lodged in the car’s trunk and front passenger-side door. Then the car sped away toward East Pittsburgh with its passengers unharmed.

Officer Michael Rosfeld was only three weeks into his job at the East Pittsburgh police department when he received the car’s description. He’d been sworn into the five-person municipal office fewer than six hours previous, having been dismissed from a five-year stint at the University of Pittsburgh’s police department earlier that year. Rosfeld saw that the bullet holes sprayed across the Cruze matched the description from the police report and pulled the car over.

This is where the story gets fuzzy. In a shaky cell phone video taken from a second story window, a white-shirted Rose opens the car’s right door, sprints through a gap between two row houses, and disappears from the camera’s view. Rosfeld lifts his wdaniel eapon and fires the first of three staccato gunshots: Crack. The camera-holder’s hand jumps. Crack. She gasps. Crack. “Why are they shooting at him?” the camera-holder asks, seemingly in shock. “Get down!” someone out-of-frame says. “No, I’m recording this,” she replies. “Why are they shooting? All they did was run, and they’re shooting at them!”

The autopsy report would later reveal that the first of the three shots struck the right side of Rose’s face; another hit his right elbow, shattering bone; and the third and fatal shot entered through Rose’s back, pierced his lung, and tore through his heart. A crescendo of sirens swelled through the neighborhood, and police officers pooled into the street at the traffic-stop-turned-murder-scene.

Rose knew the consequences America might impose on him for the color of his skin. In a poem for an honors English course two years previous, he had written, “I see mothers bury their sons / I want my mom to never feel that pain…I understand people believe I’m just a statistic / I say to them I’m different.” He knew he lived in a country where black men are more than twice as likely to be shot by police than their white counterparts, and more than five times as likely to be imprisoned despite committing crimes at similar rates.

Rose lived in a community regularly punctuated by gun violence. But his murder at the hands of a police officer—an agent whose sworn mission was to serve and protect him—pushed Pittsburgh over the edge. In the following weeks, the city and state deployed hundreds of riot police to quell more than ten demonstrations across more than twenty square miles; protesters blocked a highway at one protest; a Republican elected official drove through a crowd at another. High-profile figures, including activist Shaun King, rapper Nas Jones, and NFL player Lamont Wade, weighed in on the case, and national media descended on Pittsburgh to see whether the city would detonate, like L.A. after the killing of Rodney King.

I covered Rose’s story and its aftermath for The Pitt News. Buildings remained unburnt, but Rose’s death lit a fire that has lasted long after the attention of national media. The shooting sparked a political movement that, like the Georgia movement that followed the shooting of seventeen-year-old Jordan Davis and got his mother, Lucy McBath, elected to the House of Representatives, could re-align the power balance of the city.

On a muggy summer afternoon, the Thursday after Rose died, protesters gathered outside the sleepy East Pittsburgh shopping complex that hosts the neighborhood’s police station. “He was a good kid. He didn’t deserve this,” Lesa Sanders, who knew Rose, told me. She was working on a sign that read: “Black Lives Matter / No Justice / No Peace.” Her young daughter stabbed the sidewalk with pink chalk next to her. A number of protesters in attendance had personal connections to Rose. Others were members of political movements that had emerged from the 2016 election—leftists, anarchists. Among them was PA District 34 House Candidate Summer Lee.

Lee is a community organizer with a firm gaze, two tightly-wound hair buns, and a brusque speaking voice that brooks no bullshit. She graduated Woodland Hills High, where Rose also attended, in 2005. She went on to attend Penn State and Howard Law School, worked for the “Fight for $15” and Clinton campaigns, and started her own political career after police brutality at Woodland Hills reached a nationally-scrutinized nadir.

In late spring of 2017, former Woodland Hills School Resource Officer Steve Shaulis allegedly hit fourteen-year-old student Queshawn Wade in the face so hard that he knocked Wade’s front tooth out. Shaulis reportedly assaulted Wade in front of another officer and former Woodland Hills Principal Kevin Murray. Murray had been suspended earlier that year after he threatened to do the exact same thing to a different fourteen-year-old student with special needs. “I’ll knock your fucking teeth down your throat,” Murray can be heard saying to a student bystander who was recording the latter incident on his cell phone.

There was more where those incidents came from. A separate March 2015 video showed Shaulis slamming a student to the ground and discharging a taser twice while Murray restrained the student. A 2009 video showed him tasing another student against a locker while Murray looked on. The 2017 video circulated so widely that it reached the Washington Post. That year, five students filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that the school district fostered “a culture of abuse.”

Lee mobilized her community around the assaults using her national campaign knowledge. She helped local parent Akeya Kester run for the school board and lobbied for the Woodland Hills senior administrative staff to be replaced. Her efforts garnered the attention of Daniel Moraff, a volunteer organizer for Pittsburgh’s Democratic Socialists of America, who had recently written a piece for In These Times titled “Want to Elect Socialists? Run Them in Democratic Primaries.” Moraff approached Lee after a school board meeting to talk about doing just that.

Lee was initially reluctant, but they eventually decided on a bid to unseat Representative Paul Costa of Pennsylvania’s 34th House District, who was part of a Southwestern Pennsylvania political dynasty that had been in politics for more than twenty years. “I just came to the realization that I can’t lead someone some place where I’m not willing to go myself, so that’s how I got into this campaign,” Lee told Pittsburgh publication The Incline in December 2017.

Lee launched her campaign in January 2018, at Braddock sandwich restaurant Portogallo Peppers N’At. Her platform included implementing a $15-an-hour minimum wage, abolishing cash bail, banning fracking, and refusing corporate donations. Under a poppy-colored pea coat, she wore a shirt which read: “I Am My Ancestors’ Wildest Dream,” and in an optimistic first speech she promised to replicate her work with the school board in Pennsylvania’s State House. “If I can do something in my community, if I can change the landscape in Pittsburgh…then we can change things in every community across the country,” Lee said.

Fast-forward six months, and Lee had a different tone. “Five kids from Woodland Hills have been killed since I started running,” she said at a rally outside the Allegheny County Courthouse the day after Rose was killed. Her voice was hard, and she gripped the microphone like a sword. “We will not just fight the power. We will seize the power. We are coming for anybody, anybody who stands in our way.”

At this East Pittsburgh protest, Lee was coming for the Allegheny County District Attorney. She passed the megaphone between herself and two young activists: seventeen-year-old Christian Carter and a twenty-year-old named Miesha Blackwell. The three led more than one hundred protesters in blocking a major intersection near the police station. “We want an indictment!” they chanted as cars lined up like caterpillars around them. Blackwell gathered a group of children to the center of the circle. “We’re doing this because they have the right to live without fear,” she said.

A handful of police officers flanked the protesters from a distance. “No media comment,” one told me when I asked them about strategy. Others just scowled. But they followed the protest as it twisted and turned.

Three miles in, protesters climbed an exit ramp onto a half-deserted I-376 East. Lee stopped them there. “We’re not going to leave this highway until everyone is registered to vote!” she shouted. Organizers distributed themselves in practiced motion across all exit ramps and started blocking traffic. Others blew up two child-sized balloons, shaped ‘1’ and ‘7’ for Rose’s age when he died. Protesters held the bridge for two, then four, then six hours. Helicopters circled overhead. Lines of car headlights stretched like luminous threads over the horizon.

Protesters prepared to camp out until dawn. “We’ll stay out here ‘til the sun comes up if we have to,” Sonia Andrews, from the nearby town of Wilkinsburg, said. She sat blocking an I-376 exit with her daughter, Traci. Both were determined to pressure the DA to indict Rosfeld. “Enough is enough,” Andrews said. Next to her, Stephanie Blakemore rocked her nine-month-old child to sleep at the highway exit’s mouth. A nearby speaker blasted N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police.” “Those cops should not have shot that baby,” Blakemore said, speaking of Rose. “All babies matter.” Allana Curington, an organizer from Pittsburgh’s North Side, articulated the animating spirit that had more than a hundred people occupying a state highway early into Friday morning: “They won’t listen to anything we say,” she said. “Maybe they’ll listen because of what we do.”

Eventually, Curington received confirmation that they’d been heard. More than forty state police show up at one a.m. and swept in from the East. Led by Area Commander William Teper, they were dressed in all-black gear and had one vehicle for roughly every twenty protesters.

“What you’ve done here is unprecedented,” Teper said to Lee. “But you need to leave.”

“You gonna discipline your officers?” A protester on a motorcycle shouted from behind Lee. “You gonna kill me too?”

She quieted him with a gesture and turned back to Teper. “We’re just trying to —” she said, before Teper cut her off.

“There are a hundred more officers stationed up the road, and they’re wearing riot gear,” Teper said. “You have five minutes.” He stared at her for a moment more, turned back, and disappeared over the horizon.

Lee returned to the protesters and relayed the message. Five minutes stretched into ten, which stretched into an hour. People nervously eyed the police vehicles up the road. “I’m not tryna get arrested,” a protester confided to me. But when Summer began to speak, he turned to her reflexively.

“I’m not here to tell y’all what to do,” she said to a crowd of roughly fifty remaining protesters. “You gotta do what’s right for you.” Many of them were haggard and tired, and their exposed skin glowed with warm June drizzle. They conferenced briefly. Then they linked arms, blocked the highway, and prepared for confrontation.

Around 2:30, Teper started back down the road with roughly thirty black-clad riot police. They moved honey-slow under sodium-yellow streetlights, their batons ready, toward protesters who wanted nothing more than legal recourse for a child’s death. The image felt like something from an historical biopic—an ultra-vivid entry in a gallery of sepia-toned Civil Rights-era photographs.

The riot police got within fifty feet of the protesters. I raised my cell-phone camera to record a video. And then Lee ran out between the two crowds.

“Hold up! Hold up!” she shouted. The police stopped for a moment, and protesters swarmed around her.

“What we’ve done here is unprecedented,” Lee said to them, her words echoing Teper’s. Her hair was lit red and blue by nearby police lights. Officers fingered their batons as they watched her speak. “But we can come back tomorrow.” There were grumbles and moans, and the same man from the motorcycle shouted back at her: “How they ever gonna stop doing this if we don’t show them?” Lee acknowledged his words with a nod, but posed a question in return. “You gotta ask yourself: Is this worth going to jail for?”

In that moment, it was tempting to imagine Lee as democracy’s last defender—poised between riot police and a grieving township, the last levee of a community whose boys lie dead in the street. She’s a candidate who could’ve been a high-powered Washington lawyer, a woman who could’ve left her steel town behind but returned to flip its school board, a rhetorical firebrand who’s just as fluent in the science of air pollution as she is in the history of racist incarceration. Although her politics are local, they echo beyond the three-thousand-acre district she hopes to represent, touching on such universal themes as violence, love, justice, you and me. And on that June night, when police brutality might’ve set flint to tinder, she diverted hope towards the ballot box one last time.

“Remember, we need you out there. You gotta do what you gotta do to keep yourself safe,” she told the assembled protesters one last time. One woman was voluntarily arrested to protest police brutality. The rest heeded her advice, and the group dissolved. Protesters walked down to an unblocked street to hail cabs and call Ubers. One checked back with Lee to see if she had a ride: “You good, Summer?”

“I’m good,” she called back, nodding. Then she walked down the exit ramp and slipped out of sight.

Lee’s message appears to be resonating with her constituents. In the May 2018 primary election, she beat out nineteen-year incumbent Paul Costa with seventy percent of the vote. She ran unopposed in the November general, securing more than twenty-one thousand votes in a district populated by around fifty-five thousand people per the 2010 census. She’s now the first black woman to represent southwest PA in the state legislature. Since her victories, she’s been profiled by The New York TimesThe New Yorker, and many other national publications. It’s a spotlight that she could easily parlay into television appearances and national fame. But she remains focused on winning Western Pennsylvania races, and helping like-minded candidates do the same.

In late November, Pittsburgh activist Leon Ford announced his campaign for a Pittsburgh city council seat at a local co-working space. “We are here as part of a movement,” he told a crowd of supporters. “Summer Lee has shown us it can be done.”

In 2012, Ford was paralyzed from the waist down after an altercation with two police officers who mistook him for a suspect with a similar name, CityLab reported. He was nineteen at the time, and complied with the officers’ request for his license, insurance and registration. But Pittsburgh detective David Derbish jumped in Ford’s car and the two started to struggle. Derbish shot Ford in the spine. Ford later woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed to discover he’d been arraigned on charges of aggravated assault against a police officer. Ford sued the city for $5.5 million and won. He released a book, Untold: Testimony and Guide to Overcoming Adversity, about his experience, and was named Pittsburgh City Paper’s 2017 “Pittsburgher of the Year.” But Ford hadn’t considered a run for office until Rosfeld shot Rose.

“After Antwon got shot…I was talking to the family and realized, ‘I’ve been there. That’s been me,’” he told me.

Ford’s words could serve as the motto for Pittsburgh’s emerging political class: “I’ve been there. That’s been me.” Both he and Lee are part of a new brand of local politician whose influence is growing. They cement their beliefs at children’s funerals rather than black-tie fundraisers, forge their characters in grueling physical therapy sessions instead of handshake marathons. Lee and Ford—along with New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Virginia’s Lee Carter, and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib—are the emergent Left’s answer to an authoritarian future of border walls and resource wars. If Donald Trump cynically adopted the language and posture of grievance, Lee and Ford inspire loyalty by genuinely sharing in their community’s grief. When the steel industry left her town to die, she came back to save it. When the city took his use of his legs, he fought back in court. And when Rose was killed, they mourned with their communities for another boy lost before his time.

Lee was the final speaker at Ford’s campaign event. Many of the attendees knew her on a first-name basis, and they tuned in, rapt, when she took the stage. She worked her way to a peak, and delivered them an ultimatum. “Y’all gotta turn out for him!” she shouted. “Leon will need every prayer, every thought, every dollar, and every door to win!”

The crowd exploded in applause, and Lee exited stage left. Attendees’ hands gripped hers with a dedicated intensity. They told her about their fears for their children, their struggles to pay rent, expressed frustration at still being treated like second-class citizens this far into the second millenium. She listened, nodded, and, disentangling herself, ducked into a nearby hallway. She paused and massaged her temples. Then she took a deep breath, straightened her back, and re-entered the world. ■

*Correction: an earlier version of this story referred to Daniel Moraff as a “former campaign manager” for the DSA. He was a volunteer organizer.

Kieran McLean is a Pittsburgh-based reporter whose work has appeared in NPR and PublicSourceand is forthcoming in Citylab and Popula.

This article was originally published by Belt Magazine.

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Kentucky Secretary of State Staff Searched Voting Records for Investigators and Rivals, Records Show

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, in 2014 when she was a Senate candidate, waiting to speak at a campaign event. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

A release by the State Board of Elections shows that two secretary of state staffers used their access to the voter registration system to look up members of an agency currently investigating the office, along with a slew of other state employees.

Kentucky officials publicly released records Wednesday that show 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.

It is not clear in many instances why the office of Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes was looking up people and their personal information — political affiliation, every home address ever on file, some Social Security numbers — but it has led critics to conclude her office abused its access to the system to gain information about her political opponents and those involved in multiple investigations of her conduct while in office.

After ProPublica and the Lexington Herald-Leader reported on the use of voter rolls this year, Grimes, a Democrat, had maintained that her office had done no inappropriate searches, and she called for the State Board of Elections to release records of who had looked up what, if anything. She asked that not only her staff’s search logs be made public but also the searches of every county official with similar access.

“These searches will reflect that my staff have always acted appropriately pursuant to my role as Kentucky’s secretary of state and chief elections official,” she said in a statement released by her office.

After the release of the records, a spokesperson maintained the same. Lillie Ruschell said all searches were performed at the request of the media or the public, or to perform background checks on job applicants. She attached a series of documents she contended proved that the searches were valid, though many of them were irrelevant to the claims.

The disclosures come as an independent counsel is preparing a report on a variety of allegations made against Grimes, including claims her office has inappropriately handed sensitive voter roll information. The investigator, appointed by the state’s attorney general, 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 Cabinet are conducting their own investigations, and they were given copies of the search logs in August. Both are investigating, among a range of issues, whether Grimes’ office inappropriately searched current and former employees as well as job applicants to determine their political affiliation.

Grimes has maintained her office’s innocence and has repeatedly called the investigations political, despite the fact the investigations of her are based in part on complaints filed by Jared Dearing, a fellow Democrat whom Grimes had hand-picked to serve as executive director of the SBE. Grimes has maintained that the searches were done as part of the regular course of business at the request of citizens, candidates and members of the media, and that any searches of job applicants were part of standard background checks.

At the heart of much of the controversy surrounding Grimes is the claim by some that she has inappropriately attempted to usurp the authority of the SBE, turning the ostensibly independent agency into a tool of her office.

Indeed, state legislators had drawn up a bill that would strip the secretary of state’s authority over the SBE and make inappropriate access of the voting rolls a crime. While the bill passed the state Senate, it did not make it past a House committee vote. Sen. Damon Thayer, a Republican and the author of the Senate bill, revived it on Wednesday, giving it a second chance this session.

Grimes was not the only member of the secretary of state’s office to argue she had never inappropriately accessed the voter rolls. Mary Sue Helm, the elections director within the office, also disputed reporting by ProPublica and the Herald-Leader showing she had searched for information on members of the state school board and ethics commission.

“I have never, ever misused or abused any voter information for any purpose other than to fulfill my duties and responsibilities as a county employee and a state employee,” Helm told the House elections committee on Monday. “It is not a good feeling when you wake up in the morning and you see your name in the paper where it has been alleged that you misused voter data.”

Republican Rep. Jeff Hoover said he ultimately voted against the bill restricting the secretary of state’s oversight of elections because of Helm’s denials.

But the documents show Helm searched for all members of the school board in alphabetical order on May 10, 2018, and Holly Iaccarino, a member of the ethics commission, on July 31. She also looked up Iaccarino’s husband, Carmine Iaccarino, an attorney in the Public Protection Cabinet.

Lindsay Hughes Thurston, then the assistant secretary of state and now a district judge in Fayette County, searched for the rest of the ethics commission on the same day in late July, though her searches of commission members began in May of last year. She looked up Commissioner April Wimberg on May 4 and Commissioner Christopher Brooker on May 29.

One of the complaints filed by Dearing last summer accused Thurston of searching for job applicants and, in one instance, recommending a less qualified Democrat over a Republican applicant. The documents show Thurston performed the searches for these candidates on April 26. She looked up the same candidates again, along with multiple other staff members, on Sept. 6.

In her statement, Ruschell provided no explanation for why members of the school board were searched. She attached two articles written in 2016 as explanations for the 2018 searches of the ethics board, saying they provided “further background as to why ethics commissioners were looked up.” The articles concerned Gov. Matt Bevin’s control of appointments to the board.

Ruschell also claimed that Helm — who has worked in state government for more than 20 years — “does not know who is on these boards,” and so did not search for them intentionally. She simply did searches she was asked to perform without question.

Similarly, Ruschell provided documentation to justify Helm’s July 30 search of Crit Luallen, the former Democratic lieutenant governor. The documentation shows that Luallen signed as a witness for a candidate for office who filed paperwork in late January. Ruschell claimed that the search, done six months after the filing, was in response to a press inquiry about Luallen’s residency. She provided no proof of the inquiry.

Grimes is not known to have used the system to perform these searches herself. Only the search logs of Helm, Thurston and Erica Gaylon, Grimes’ current chief of staff, were released Wednesday. Grimes has claimed she voluntarily relinquished her login to the system shortly after the 2016 election, after a Department of Homeland Security briefing warned that too many logins presented security risks.

Thurston did not immediately return requests for comment. Helm declined to comment.

The remainder of the searches reported by ProPublica and the Herald-Leader are also reflected in the documents. Helm looked up Rocky Adkins, a Democratic state representative and current candidate for governor, multiple times on Jan. 25, 2018, initially misspelling his name.

Helm also searched three other state representatives: Rep. Angie Hatton, D-Whitesburg; Rep. Diane St. Onge, R-Fort Wright; and Rep. Regina Huff, R-Williamsburg. All three, along with Adkins, were searched around the January 2018 deadline for candidates to file for office, which is consistent with Helm’s claim that she uses the database to make sure candidate information is correct when they file for office.

Ruschell also pointed to a May 14 call for poll workers for the primary election to help explain why Thurston searched hundreds of public workers between May 16 and 17.

A spokesperson for Grimes’ office said the political affiliations of staffers and job applicants were searched because the office is required to maintain a bipartisan staff. The spokesperson also claimed that staff searched for job applicants’ voting histories in order to assess their qualifications.

The Personnel Cabinet, which manages hiring and human resources for the state, has said it is wrong to look up the party affiliation or voting history of any applicant for a nonpolitical state job.

“Under no circumstances should merit employment be based upon one’s political affiliation or their voting record,” said Katherine North, a spokesperson for the agency.

In addition to reporting on searches within the voter registration system, ProPublica and the Herald-Leader’s three-part series showed Grimes pushed through a $150,000 contract to a cybersecurity consultant state employees had worried was unqualified, but whose CEO had donated to Grimes’ campaigns. The reporting also showed Grimes and Thurston had instructed SBE staff to delay acting on a federal consent decree aimed at cleaning the state’s voter rolls.

Grimes has called the reporting sexist, defending the actions of her office. She denies that the contract was awarded inappropriately, and she maintains that her office is in compliance with the consent decree.

Correction, March 6, 2019: This story originally misstated whose search logs were released. It was those of Mary Sue Helm, Lindsay Hughes Thurston and Erica Gaylon, not just Helm and Thurston.

This story was co-published with the Lexington Herald-Leader and was originally published by ProPublica.


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