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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

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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Kentucky’s Secretary of State Turns Up Heat in Fight With Elections Board

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Alison Lundergan Grimes removed the State Board of Elections’ executive director, a longtime critic of her actions, from a national committee on improving the country’s voting systems.

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes escalated her fight with the State Board of Elections last week when she removed its executive director from a national committee devoted to improving the country’s voting systems and better protecting them from cyberattacks.

Grimes took the action against the executive director, Jared Dearing, just days before he was expected to travel to Memphis, Tennessee, to participate in a meeting dealing with upgrading the voting machines and technology used by states across the country. The meeting is being held by the federal Election Assistance Commission’s Standards Board, and is widely considered to be the most significant meeting of the EAC in years.

Dearing has been a longtime critic of actions taken by Grimes, by law the state’s top elections official, and last year he filed a nine-page complaint with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission accusing Grimes of creating a hostile work environment and overstepping her authority. Dearing’s complaint helped prompt a number of investigations into Grimes’ performance and played a role in the state legislature’s decision last month to strip Grimes of some of her authority over state elections.

Grimes has steadfastly denied the claims against her, calling them politically motivated. Grimes is a Democrat, as is Dearing. In a statement, Grimes’ spokeswoman, Lillie Ruschell, said appointments to the Standards Board remain at the secretary’s discretion, and she made new appointments using “the same routine practice as previous appointments over the past eight years.”

Ruschell said the decision to remove Dearing was based on his “absence from the 2018 EAC meeting.” In a statement, Dearing said he skipped last year’s meeting at the direction of Grimes.

“I was unable to attend the 2018 meeting because the secretary did not give me approval to travel, and at that time the secretary approved all travel requests,” he said. “The Standards Board meetings are an important function of securing the commonwealth’s election systems. The State Board of Elections will continue to do everything in our power to secure our systems whether or not we are in attendance.”

This will be the first time in the history of the EAC’s Standards Board that Kentucky will not be represented by an SBE director. Trey Grayson, a former secretary of state in Kentucky, said “It’s puzzling to see this deviation from Kentucky’s long-standing practice of appointing a staff member from the SBE to this board. And the timing of Dearing’s removal, given his outspoken criticism of her, is curious.”

Dearing was widely expected to be an active participant in the Memphis meeting, and he had been consulting with elections officials across the state and country in preparation. He is being replaced by Assistant Secretary of State Erica Galyon, who has been largely absent from national conversations on voting machines.

Grimes also removed Madison County Clerk Kenny Barger from the Standards Board and appointed Johnny Collier, the clerk from Jessamine County. Barger has also been an outspoken critic of Grimes. Ruschell said Barger was removed because of his lack of “communication” about the meeting. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Collier also did not respond to a request for comment, but his office indicated he would not attend the meeting in Memphis family issues. This has left Grimes’ office scrambling to find another elections official only one day before the meeting begins.

Neither Barger nor Dearing’s term on the Standards Board officially ends until the end of the month, making it unclear to Kentucky’s elections officials why Grimes chose to make appointments only days ahead of a crucial meeting.

“This meeting is huge,” said Gabrielle Summe, the clerk in Kenton County, who is also the president of Kentucky’s statewide clerks association. “It decides the machines Kentucky will be able to buy.”

Summe said Grimes’ replacement of Barger may have been improper. She said national regulations required that “local election officials” select one of their own for the Standards Board. Summe said the Kentucky County Clerks Association was neither told that Grimes intended to dismiss Barger nor consulted about his replacement. The association is taking steps to prevent Barger’s removal. said the KCCA had never before complained about the appointment process.

“There’s no vacancy,” Summe said. “There’s no reason to replace him and he’s got at least a little more experience with the process.”

According to federal and state officials, last September Dearing was in the process of being approved for a security clearance when Grimes abruptly asked the Department of Homeland Security to halt the process. The move came only weeks after Dearing first issued his public grievances with Grimes.

In her statement, Ruschell did not explain why Grimes halted the process but said security clearances were at the secretary’s discretion.

In pushing back against the legislation that reduced her powers over state election matters this year, Grimes had argued that she alone had the security clearance necessary to respond to real or potential threats to election security in the state. In doing so, she failed to mention she had played a role in making sure members of the SBE lacked such clearances.

“At a time when election security is a top concern for our nation, our Republican majority wants to remove the only member of the State Board of Elections with a National Security Clearance from having a voice in protecting Kentucky, placing the process solely in the hands of unelected bureaucrats appointed by the Governor,” Grimes said in a statement last month.

After the 2016 election, DHS allowed the “chief elections official” in each state to apply for a security clearance and to sponsor the applications of two appointees in order to streamline communication between the federal government and the states.

The clearance allows DHS to quickly communicate threats to Kentucky’s elections infrastructure. Without the clearance, Dearing would likely not be among the first to know about imminent risks. The SBE is largely responsible for the day to day management of elections.

Officials indicated the SBE has expressed its intention to ask for additional clearances to be given to its members now that legislation has given the board clearer authority. It is likely this process will move forward.

EAC spokeswoman Brenda Soder said the general counsel is reviewing Grimes’ new appointments to the Standards Board “to determine the right course of action for all involved” and that a decision on how to move forward will be guided by relevant federal law.

“This will have a huge impact on the way our state is run,” Summe said. “We need to keep the people there who should be there.”

Update, April 11, 2019: The Election Assistance Commission rejected Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’ attempt to replace one of Kentucky’s representatives on the commission’s Standards Board. The commission said Grimes lacked the authority to replace Kenny Barger, the local elections representative serving on the Standards Board. Grimes had tried to replace Barger in the days leading up to a major conference on voting machine reform.

This article was originally published by ProPublica.

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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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