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A Onetime Rising Democratic Star Faces Questions About Voter Privacy

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, who attained national prominence for a failed Senate run against Mitch McConnell, is taking heat because her staff has routinely examined the voting records of state employees, job applicants and even potential political rivals.

In an appearance on MSNBC in July 2017, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes expressed her vehement opposition to giving voter data to President Donald Trump’s voter fraud commission, which had requested it from election officials in all 50 states. The privacy risks were simply too high, she said.

“There is not enough bourbon here in Kentucky to make this request seem sensible,” Grimes said. “Not on my watch are we going to be releasing sensitive information that relates to the privacy of individuals.”

But beginning months before she made that statement, Grimes’ own staff had been looking up hundreds of voters in the very same registration system. One of her former staffers first revealed the practice last summer but provided little detail.

Now, an investigation by ProPublica and the Lexington Herald-Leader shows that the searches were extensive and targeted prominent state politicians, including gubernatorial candidate Rocky Adkins, who could have been Grimes’ opponent in the Democratic primary. Grimes, who had been considering a bid, announced last week that she has decided not to run for the governorship.

Grimes’ luster has dimmed of late. She was seen as a rising Democratic star when, at age 35, she ran a doomed race against Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014. Now, three state agencies are pursuing investigations against her office — a result of complaints filed by numerous state employees and officials. At least four have quietly filed complaints with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission; two others have complained publicly. (In addition, Grimes’ father was indicted on federal charges for allegedly making illegal campaign contributions to her 2014 Senate campaign; he has pleaded not guilty.) Grimes has defended her conduct.

Grimes’ staff made questionable use of its unprecedented access to the voter registration system, or VRS. They looked up applicants for non-political positions with the seeming purpose of discovering their party affiliation. State law prohibits inquiring as to whether such applicants are Republicans or Democrats.

Her staff searched for hundreds of voters, mostly state employees outside the secretary of state’s office, for no discernible reason. Documents show they looked up current and former employees, a federal judge, the Kentucky education commissioner and every member of the Kentucky Board of Education.

Grimes during a special meeting of the State Board of Elections at the Kentucky State Capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky, on Aug. 28, 2018. Photo: Alex Slitz/Lexington Herald-Leader

They even searched for members of the ethics commission who are investigating Grimes herself.

Presented with questions from ProPublica and the Herald-Leader, Grimes took a two-pronged stance: She cast doubt on the accuracy of the logs that revealed the searches while defending her right to engage in such searches.

Grimes asserted that the search logs had “not been verified” despite the fact that similar logs were provided last August to the agencies investigating Grimes’ conduct, including the ethics commission, the state personnel board and a special prosecutor appointed by the Kentucky attorney general. She also said it “boggles my mind” that anyone would criticize her access to the system given that she is the state’s “chief elections official.”

On Jan. 24, six nights after ProPublica and the Herald-Leader posed questions about the VRS searches, Grimes went to Franklin Circuit Court in Frankfort. She filed a pre-emptive action requesting that a judge declare her right to gain access to the VRS. The suit names as defendants the executive director and assistant executive director of the Kentucky State Board of Elections or SBE, which is charged with overseeing the state’s elections and maintaining the voter rolls. (The executive director has filed an ethics complaint against Grimes.)

The filing asserts that Grimes’ office is “legally entitled to access the VRS pursuant to federal and Kentucky law. Indeed, access is necessary to perform the duties imposed on the Secretary of State by federal and Kentucky law.” The filing describes assertions that Grimes’ staff used the VRS to uncover party affiliations as “inaccurate” but goes on to assert that the office has the right to that information because Kentucky law requires the SBE staff to be bipartisan.

At least one Democratic election official in Kentucky takes a different view. “It’s inappropriate for the secretary of state’s office to have access at all,” said Don Blevins Jr., the clerk for Fayette County. “The fact that they’re abusing that privilege is no surprise.”

Grimes runs the first secretary of state’s office in Kentucky history to have such access. Trey Grayson, who held the position from 2004-11, said he could not think of a reason he or his staff would have needed it. Any need to access the system, he said, could have been accomplished by consulting the SBE. (The SBE is separate from the secretary of state’s office but closely linked to it; it’s chaired by the secretary of state.)

In fact, when Grayson served as secretary of state, Kentucky’s ethics commission ruled he could run for a Senate seat without recusing himself as chief elections officer expressly because he had no access to the rolls, which could have given him an advantage. The ethics commission has since said that opinion no longer stands in light of Grimes’ access.

Grayson said such separation “provided comfort for Kentuckians that no one person — specifically, the secretary of state — had too much authority over elections,” he said, adding that he and his predecessors “had the good sense to maintain that setup.”

State Sen. Damon Thayer introduced a bill several weeks ago that would block the secretary of state’s office and the board members of the SBE from accessing the VRS. The searches “make you pause,” Thayer said. “You wonder, is she conducting some sort of witch hunt?”

Grimes’ use of the VRS first raised questions in early 2017 when Matt Selph, then assistant executive director of the SBE, noticed that a voting precinct had been deleted from the system. He found that Grimes and seven of her staff members had administrative access to it.

It allowed her staff to see, and change, extensive personal data, though there’s no indication that they did so. One state official called the information “a starter kit for identity theft.” That access was then reduced to “read-only” in February 2017.

Pieces of the voter roll contained in Kentucky’s VRS have always been accessible. The public has the ability to search for a person’s party affiliation and voting precinct if they can supply a first name, last name and year of birth. Anyone can also buy a more extensive version of the voter roll for a fee. That version includes each voter’s full name, birth year, party affiliation, address, precinct and whether the voter has cast a ballot (but not for whom) in the past five years.

Matt Selph in the Lexington Herald-Leader office in Lexington. Photo: Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader

Internal access to the system reveals far more. Administrators can view voters’ drivers license numbers, every address ever linked to a voter, full birth dates, phone numbers, email addresses, Social Security numbers for some voters, disability status, military status and the addresses of voters — like domestic violence survivors — who have petitioned to have their address kept off the public roll.

Relatively few people have full access. County clerks and their deputies have such privileges in order to add people to the voter rolls but can make changes only in their counties. The SBE maintains the voter roll for the state and has the ability to make changes statewide. Grimes and her staff demanded the same access as the SBE staff before the 2016 election, claiming they needed it to monitor voter complaints.

Grimes says she no longer has access to the system, but her assistant secretary of state and elections director have maintained read-only privileges. Months after his discovery, Selph submitted a detailed 12-page complaint to the ethics commission and the board of the SBE, explaining his objections to her staff’s access to the VRS, among other things. The board voted to fire him shortly thereafter. (Selph has since filed a whistleblower suit against the state.)

Selph’s concerns have been echoed by current SBE Executive Director, Jared Dearing, and multiple county clerks, who say there is no legitimate reason for Grimes to have access to the database.

In August 2018, as part of his own complaint letter, Dearing first publicly accused Grimes and her staff of not only having inappropriate access, but also of searching for employees as well as job applicants in order to identify their political affiliation.

ProPublica and the Herald-Leader have examined documents that reveal the applicants Dearing was alluding to. They show that in April 2018, Lindsay Hughes Thurston, then an assistant secretary of state and now a Fayette County district judge, looked up Rashad Cleveland and Alan Hess. At the time, both were applicants for an IT position at the SBE. Hess is registered as a Republican and Cleveland as a Democrat. Dearing told the Personnel Board that Thurston had encouraged him to hire Cleveland, despite his view that Hess was more qualified. Dearing ignored this recommendation.

Attorneys representing the SBE have sometimes said searches of job applicants were part of “standard background checks.” But Thomas Stephens, the head of the state agency that performs background checks, also testified that the only information available in the voter roll unavailable in a state background check was political affiliation. “At this point, I am disturbed,” he said of the searches, adding that he could not “fathom” any need to use the VRS as part of a background check.

In several instances, Grimes’ staff engaged in what seem to be highly political searches. For example, Mary Sue Helm, director of elections in the secretary of state’s office, searched for Adkins, a member of the Kentucky house, during the 2018 legislative session after he said he was interested in running for governor. Grimes was then considering entering the race. In July, Helm looked up former Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen, who spent much of the summer stumping for Democratic congressional candidate Amy McGrath and has endorsed and donated thousands to Attorney General Andy Beshear, another Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

Adkins said he “needed to know more before commenting” and then declined to comment when presented with more information. Luallen said, “I can’t imagine why my name was looked up.”

For her part, Thurston summoned records for Thomas Fulton, a federal judge who’d presided over a swearing in ceremony for new citizens on the day he was searched. She sought records for “Benjamin Adams,” potentially Brig. Gen. Benjamin F. Adams III, the current commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs. And she checked out a former veterans affairs commissioner, Norman Arflack, who is now the United States marshal in eastern Kentucky.

Only days before Sherry Whitehouse was named as a Democratic board member of the SBE in April, Thurston looked her up, too. On a single day in May, Thurston searched for more than 100 people, many of whom appear to be state employees across a range of agencies. Records show she continued her searches, even after being publicly criticized for the practice, until she left to become a judge.

Thurston did not reply to a written list of questions. Neither Whitehouse, Frazier nor the Department of Veterans Affairs returned calls seeking comment. A spokesperson for the Board of Education declined to comment.

At the September SBE meeting, which occurred after Dearing had publicly accused Grimes of inappropriate access, Grimes did not address these searches. Instead, she directed her ire at Dearing, who she said had jeopardized the security of Kentucky’s voter registration system by releasing search logs to investigators.

“Respectfully, Mr. Dearing, it is highly inappropriate for you as the executive director to put information about our voter registration system, the security of which is paramount to our cybersecurity efforts, in the public domain without the authorization of the chair, without the authorization of the board attorney and in the fashion in which you are attempting to do it now,” Grimes said.

“That’s why they call me a whistleblower,” Dearing interjected. Grimes then threatened to have state police remove him from the meeting.

This story, the first of a three-part series, was co-published with the Lexington Herald-Leader. It was originally published by ProPublica.

Politics

A High-Speed Internet Boondoggle is Now a Campaign Issue in Kentucky

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Gov. Matt Bevin is pictured in 2015. Photo: Jacob Ryan

Candidates for governor of both parties are using Kentucky’s long-delayed and over-budget statewide internet project to bash Gov. Matt Bevin, following a jointly published report by the Courier Journal and ProPublica.

KentuckyWired — a bipartisan plan pushed by former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican Rep. Hal Rogers — promised to bring improved broadband internet connectivity to the state’s farthest corners. But it is years behind schedule and more than $100 million over budget.

Bevin’s Democratic opponents in the governor’s race laid blame with the current administration.

“The governor has damaged the project with his lack of commitment to keep it on schedule,” House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins, D-Sandy Hook, said in an emailed statement. “In fact, it will cost the state more to get out of the contract than if we continue. In order to go the last mile and complete this project, we need to look at successful models in other states and bring new partners to the table.”

Representatives for Bevin and his technology chief, Chuck Grindle, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the report, which highlighted dissent in the Republican administration’s approach to salvaging the troubled KentuckyWired project.

Democratic candidate and former state Auditor Adam Edelen, who has made improved broadband connectivity part of his platform in the governor’s race, said in an emailed statement that Bevin “doesn’t care” enough to fix the project.

“As governor, I will prioritize building a real system to provide broadband to the hundreds of thousands of Kentuckians who still lack access, whether in the hills of eastern Kentucky or Southern and Western Jefferson County,” Edelen said. “It must be done through partnership between the public and private sector, but that doesn’t mean pushing a half-baked plan that leaves taxpayers holding the bag.”

The campaign manager for Attorney General Andy Beshear, the son of the former governor, called for “working together across party lines.”

“As governor, Andy’s first step will be evaluating the KentuckyWired program in a nonpartisan way focused on both its costs and potential benefits for our families,” campaign manager Eric Hyers said in an emailed statement. “From there, he can keep what’s working and change what isn’t.”

A spokeswoman for Rogers, however, issued an emailed statement last week defending Bevin’s stewardship.

“With any public-private project of this magnitude, delays and challenges are to be expected,” the statement said. “Since Gov. Bevin inherited this project, he has worked diligently to comb through the unexpected problems and carefully balanced rising expenses with future benefits.”

Wednesday’s Courier Journal-ProPublica report underscored warnings that Beshear administration officials received about likely roadblocks.

Despite these, KentuckyWired moved ahead with what experts have said is an unrealistic three-year construction schedule for the project that saw the state accept most of the risk for the public-private partnership.

In his statement, Rogers described KentuckyWired as the “only path” to affordable, high-speed internet for his constituents in eastern Kentucky.

But state Rep. Robert Goforth, R-East Bernstadt, a challenger to Bevin for the Republican Party’s nomination for governor, disagreed.

In an interview with the Courier Journal, Goforth said Bevin should have killed the project years ago. He said Bevin has much to learn from a broadband project in Jackson County, which Goforth represents.

The Kentucky-based nonprofit Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative used federal stimulus money to bring high-speed fiber-optic lines within reach of every home and business in Jackson and Owsley counties, the Courier Journal and ProPublica reported.

“If Jackson County can do it, the rest of Kentucky should be able to follow their example and be able to duplicate what they have done to be able to provide the fastest internet service to one of the most rural communities in Kentucky,” Goforth said. “We can do this.”

State Rep. Lynn Bechler, R-Marion, described as “marvelous” the job Peoples Rural and other similar cooperatives and rural providers have done.

He said he wished the Peoples Rural model could be followed in his area of western Kentucky, where residents such as Christy Hardison say they pay upward of $120 a month for unreliable satellite internet service, the only available option.

Bechler, co-chairman of the Program Review and Investigations Committee, which is investigating KentuckyWired, reiterated his call for a halt to the project.

To solve the problem of poor rural broadband access, Bechler proposed the creation of a state incentive program to encourage more projects like the one in Jackson County.

Keith Gabbard, head of Peoples Rural, told the Courier Journal that a state-level program, similar to Tennessee’s new Broadband Accessibility Grants, would encourage rural providers like his to expand service.

“The state doesn’t have to build their own network that way,” Gabbard said. “People that have already been doing that work can do a little more of it and would have an incentive to expand into areas that, it appears, the bigger companies are not going to build fiber to.”

Meanwhile, a longtime KentuckyWired skeptic, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, said he’s still waiting for the first section of the state-owned network to operate.

The project’s overseers said in December that the first loop, an area that includes Frankfort, Lexington, Louisville and northern Kentucky, was nearly ready to be turned on.

Phillip Brown, then head of the state authority in charge of KentuckyWired, promised “very good news” in the first quarter of 2019.

“I’m still waiting to see the press release on that happening,” McDaniel told the Courier Journal. “This thing is a mess and it’s going to continue to be a mess. I don’t know where it ends.”

This article was produced in partnership with the Louisville Courier Journal, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. It was originally published by ProPublica.

This story is part of an ongoing investigation into what went wrong with KentuckyWired. Sign up for the Miswired newsletter to receive updates in this series as soon as they publish.

Reach reporter Alfred Miller at amiller@gannett.com or 502-582-7142. Follow him on Twitter. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/subscribe.

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DOJ Files Suit Against W.Va. Governor’s Family Companies Over Mine Violation Debts

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West Virginia Governor Jim Justice at a bill signing ceremony in 2019. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a civil lawsuit against 23 coal companies owned by the family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, seeking more than $4.7 million in unpaid fines and fees for mine safety and health violations.

The delinquent fines were brought to light by investigations by NPR and the Ohio Valley ReSource as the Justice companies’ overdue debts ballooned from just under $2 million in 2014 to more than $4 million in 2018.

The lawsuit was announced Tuesday by U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen of the Western District of Virginia and David Zatezalo, the head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA.

In a news release, the DOJ said the 23 companies named in the lawsuit incurred nearly 2,300 mine safety and health violations over the last five years. According to a 2019 financial disclosure filed with the West Virginia Ethics Commission, all 23 companies are owned by the Justice family.

The civil complaint says the companies failed to pay nearly $4 million in penalties associated with those violations.

The DOJ said the Justice-owned companies ignored multiple demands by MSHA, the Department of Treasury, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to pay the delinquent debts.

“As alleged in the complaint, the defendants racked up over 2,000 safety violations over a five-year period and have, to date, refused to comply with their legal obligations to pay the resulting financial penalties,” Cullen stated in the news release. “This is unacceptable, and, as indicated by this suit, we will hold them accountable.”  

“MSHA stands with the Department of Justice in seeking to hold mine operators responsible for the penalties they owe,” Zatezalo said in the same release. “Failure to pay penalties is unfair to miners who deserve safe workplaces, and to mine operators who play by the rules.”

Representatives for the Justice companies and the governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

ReSource Investigation

Last month, an Ohio Valley ReSource analysis of federal mine safety data found that the Justice family companies owed $4.3 million in delinquent debt for mine safety violations. That meant the Justice companies had by far the highest delinquent mine safety debt in the U.S. mining industry. And it was also far more than the companies owed when Justice ran for governor in 2016, when he pledged to make good on such debts.

In 2016, an investigation by NPR, the ReSource and partner station West Virginia Public Broadcasting found that Justice’s mines owed $2.6 million in overdue mines safety fines, as well as millions more in unpaid tax debt.

Then-candidate Justice said those debts would be paid.

“When it all really boils right down to it we’re taking care of them,” Justice said at a rally announcing his gubernatorial bid. “We’ll absolutely y’know, take, make sure that every one of them is taken care of.”

This story was updated on May 8 at 4:30 p.m. to include additional information.

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Kentucky Aluminum Plant Investor Is Russian Company Formerly Under US Sanctions

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Craig Bouchard speaks at a Braidy Industries launch event as KY Gov. Matt Bevin (right) looks on.

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Russian aluminum company Rusal announced Monday it plans to invest in a new Kentucky aluminum mill to be built near Ashland in eastern Kentucky. The $200 million investment in Braidy Industries is Rusal’s first U.S. project since the Trump administration lifted U.S. sanctions placed against the company.

Rusal had been sanctioned by the U.S. government because its major controller, Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, who has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, faces accusations of “a range of malign activity around the globe” by Russia, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. Those actions include interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and meddling in neighboring Ukraine.

Deripaska also has close business ties to former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, who has been convicted of tax evasion and money laundering. Deripaska is suing the U.S. to have sanctions against him removed.

The Trump administration released Rusal from sanctions in January after the company reduced the ownership stake held by Deripaska. Congressional Democrats attempted to block the White House decision and passed legislation in the House that would keep sanctions in place. However, the bill fell short in the Republican-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky accused Democrats of trying to “politicize” the sanctions.

Braidy Bunch

According to a press release, RUSAL will earn a 40 percent share in the factory’s profits, and Braidy will keep the remaining 60 percent. The plant has also received $15 million in direct investment from the state of Kentucky. Gov. Matt Bevin cut a deal to attract Braidy to the state with that public money and additional tax incentives totaling more than $10 million.

As part of his reelection bid, Bevin has pointed to the Braidy development as evidence of job creation in an economically struggling part of the state.

“This is a seed that has been in the ground, the germination so often seems invisible to people,” Bevin said at an event over the weekend in Martin County, Kentucky. “But good things have been happening.”

The project is expected to cost more than $1 billion and employ over 500 people.

The Ashland project will produce rolled aluminum for the American auto and aircraft markets, and is the type of project President Donald Trump hoped to support with his tariffs on aluminum imports.

Braidy Industries CEO Craig T. Bouchard discussed the partnership at the New York Stock Exchange Monday morning.

“We’re really lucky and honored to have them as our partner in Kentucky,” Bouchard said of Rusal, adding that his company had chosen to partner with Rusal for its record of environmentalism.

We are going to lead the world in highest quality, lowest cost, and the least use of carbon from start to finish in the manufacturing process, and we’re changing the world,” he said.

The Ashland aluminum mill would be the first such plant to be built in the U.S. in 37 years, according to industry sources. Final agreements among the partners are expected to be signed later this year.

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