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A Power Grab in Kentucky Sparks a Revolt

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, left, and Jared Dearing, executive director of the State Board of Elections, during an emergency meeting of the SBE on Aug. 28, 2018, soon after Dearing filed a complaint against Grimes describing her office’s increasing power over the board. Photo: Alex Slitz/Lexington Herald-Leader

Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes expanded her sway over Kentucky’s election process with audacity, a willingness to fight — and a board that didn’t appear to be paying close attention. But the conflict isn’t over.

The September 2018 meeting of the Kentucky State Board of Elections was strikingly contentious. There was shouting, cross-talk and threats to eject staff — all playing out in a public forum in front of TV cameras.

But the most unusual moment, perhaps, was this: Two board members moved to rescind the votes they had cast at the previous meeting, only three weeks before. They claimed that Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, whose position also makes her chairwoman of the State Board of Elections, or SBE, had essentially misled them into granting her unprecedented day-to-day power over the SBE. The board members’ efforts to void the resolution failed. Grimes cast the deciding vote.

Today, Grimes wields that new power over the SBE — and she’s facing a revolt by some staff as well as a loss of trust from many of the county clerks who administer elections, according to interviews with more than 30 people involved in the election-administration process, as well as documents and emails. “Alison has just got so much more access to things than any other secretary of state I’ve known,” said Julie Griggs, the clerk of McCracken County, who has worked in that office for 30 years. (Like Grimes, Griggs is a Democrat.) “It’s too much control for one person to have.”

Tension between Grimes’ office and the SBE has “turned our office upside down,” longtime SBE employee Sheila Walker wrote in an email to the board in August, adding that the agency had “never experienced anything like this in past years.”

Meanwhile, Grimes has slowed the process of cleaning the state’s voter rolls. That could put Kentucky out of compliance with an agreement it signed with the U.S. Department of Justice to improve the accuracy of its rolls. In an interview, Grimes denied the state was out of compliance.

Grimes asserts that as the state’s chief elections officer, it’s only natural that she exercises close control of both the secretary of state’s office and the SBE. She has cited the SBE’s resolution granting her day-to-day control of the agency as an endorsement of the breadth of her power. Consistent with the resolution and Kentucky law, Grimes has “taken an active role in the operations of the SBE,” according to a statement provided by her legal team. The statement denied that she has introduced partisanship into the SBE.

Kentucky has long split election oversight between two agencies to reduce the possibility of partisan control, according to experts. The secretary of state manages the candidate nomination process, while the SBE handles almost all other state election functions, such as maintaining voter rolls and coordinating with the 120 county clerks in the state who oversee polling sites.

In keeping with the goal of nonpartisanship, past secretaries have presided over the board meetings of the SBE but allowed its staff to run day-to-day operations unfettered. “It appears that Grimes views the SBE as an arm of her office,” said Trey Grayson, who served as secretary of state from 2004-11. “I certainly didn’t.”

Three state agencies are now investigating what multiple SBE staff members have called a “power grab” by Grimes. The investigations largely originated with complaints by those staffers, who charged that Grimes was encroaching on the SBE’s responsibilities.

One aspect of the secretary of state’s response to the investigations suggests how closely the agency oversees the SBE: An assistant secretary of state, Erica Galyon, requested the right to sit in when investigators question SBE staffers, as did Luke Morgan, a lawyer that Grimes retained to represent the SBE.

That proposal did not go over well with the Kentucky Personnel Board, one of the agencies investigating Grimes. A lawyer for the Personnel Board emailed Galyon and Morgan, rejecting their request to be present. The email quoted messages from unnamed SBE staffers. One noted, “Our staff has been intimidated enough…is it possible to request that they not be there?” Another employee wrote, “We all just want to do our job and not be in constant fear of SOS staff retaliation.” (Grimes’ statement defended Morgan’s right to be present for the investigative interviews but did not address Galyon’s role.)

The power struggles have led to a stalemate. SBE staff is unwilling to trust the secretary of state’s office, which they’ve been told to report to, and Grimes has been stymied in her attempts to remove the SBE’s two top executives.

SBE employees say Grimes’ team is controlling even basic tasks. For example, they say they’ve been barred from meeting with third parties — including the Department of Homeland Security, which regularly assists states with cybersecurity services — without consulting the secretary’s office.

The SBE has been barred from having staff meetings without someone present from the secretary’s office. The SBE is also no longer allowed to handle its own public records requests. Document requests made to the SBE for this article were decided by the office of the secretary of state.

Asked what’s driving Grimes’ efforts to expand the scope of her role, her communications director, Lillie Ruschell, said, “I think the secretary has made it pretty clear that first and foremost, it’s her job to [have day-to-day oversight] and second, she is somebody who is on the ground every year and every day.” Ruschell added: “She’s only as involved as she feels she needs to be. She’ll back off if she needs to, but if she needs to or wants to [be involved] that’s her prerogative.”

Grimes’ attempts to expand her power first surfaced publicly in the fall of 2017. That’s when Matt Selph, then assistant executive director of the SBE, filed a complaint against her to the SBE. Among other things, it detailed a litany of ways in which he claimed Grimes and her team were increasingly asserting control over the SBE: insisting on approvals of new hires and even that Grimes’ office had to vet any correspondence between SBE staff and the organization’s board.

Grimes and her supporters brushed off Selph’s complaint as a partisan attack by a Republican. She persuaded the board to fire him. Not, she maintained in a closed session, in retaliation, but because he had allegedly harassed two employees. In an interview for this article, Grimes said Selph was terminated “for the protection of the workers at the State Board of Elections.”

Don Blevins Sr., who was on the board at the time and voted against the termination, called the accusations “weak.” And interviews for this story with more than 25 people who had worked with Selph failed to turn up anyone who witnessed any harassment. Nearly all said they believed Grimes fabricated the accusation to justify the firing, a statement echoed by Selph, who fought in the Iraq War and asserted that Grimes attempted to portray him as a troubled veteran to try to tar him. (In her statement, Grimes did not address the allegations that she fabricated the claim. For his part, Selph filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the state.)

Complaints about Grimes cycled back into view in late August 2018. Jared Dearing, a Democrat who Grimes had selected as executive director of the SBE, filed a complaint that was strikingly similar to Selph’s.

Grimes snapped into action. She called an emergency meeting of the SBE for the next day, Aug. 28. At the meeting, most of which was closed to outsiders, she and Dearing squared off against each other, trading heated arguments as the board members watched in stunned silence.

Dearing at the Aug. 28 meeting of the SBE. Photo: Alex Slitz/Lexington Herald-Leader

Eventually, Dearing was asked to leave the room. After he departed, Grimes continued to assail him at length, using words she has repeated to the media multiple times since, that he has a “fundamental misunderstanding” of her office’s statutory authority. Her extended criticisms of Dearing left the impression that Grimes wanted him ousted, according to a person with close knowledge of the board.

The emergency meeting ultimately lasted six hours. Before it ended, Grimes took one more step that would spark a controversy. Having grappled directly and indirectly with Dearing over the extent of their respective sway, Grimes insisted that the board needed to at least reaffirm her powers.

Weary after the hours of combat, the board decided to “pacify” Grimes, according to the source with knowledge of the board and multiple others who have spoken to board members, by adopting a resolution that reaffirmed her powers. They viewed it as a harmless step.

The vote was 4-0 (two board members were absent and the chair tends not to vote unless there is a tie). But two of the four who voted would almost instantly regret their actions.

Only three weeks later, the board reassembled for a regular meeting, with a full complement of six members and the chair present. Republican members DeAnna Brangers and Josh Branscum attempted to rescind the previous vote.

“Frankly, I’ve come to regret my vote on it,” Brangers said, according to an audio recording of the meeting. Board members, she explained, were “under the impression that it really just codified things that are already written in state and federal law. I mean, who can argue with that?” After she began to look at the resolution in more detail after the meeting, Brangers said, she realized she’d made a mistake. (Brangers did not explain how she missed the plain language of the resolution, which stated that the secretary of state “is necessarily charged with the day-to-day oversight of regular operations of the Kentucky State Board of Elections and its staff. …”)

It was too late. The effort to rescind the vote split along partisan lines and Grimes cast the deciding vote against the motion. Since then, she has repeatedly pointed to the disputed resolution as proof of the board’s confidence in her.

That confidence isn’t universal. In late September, the Kentucky County Clerk’s Association presented a letter signed by all 120 clerks in support of Dearing and Jennifer Scutchfield, Dearing’s second-in-command. Kenny Barger, the Republican clerk in Madison County, co-authored the letter with a Democratic clerk. “It comes to a breaking point sometimes, where you just have to call it and speak out,” he said.

Clerks have begun calling board members to express concern. Many interviewed for this article contend that Grimes has damaged the relationships between her office and the clerks, people she has little authority over but whose cooperation she and the SBE need to implement statewide programs. Grimes is term limited as secretary of state — her tenure runs out at the end of 2019 — and clerks hope her replacement will be less controlling.

Another point of controversy has been Grimes’ handling of a federal order regarding voter-roll maintenance. SBE board members and staff argue that she has prevented the board from complying with the order.

Grimes has long opposed what she refers to as “purges” of the voter roll. Like many Democrats, she views them as attempts to suppress voting. In the wake of a June 2018 Supreme Court ruling that granted Ohio the ability to remove people’s registration if they skip voting for several elections and fail to respond to a mailer, Grimes said she would never remove Kentuckians from the rolls for that reason.

At the time, Kentucky was already under fire for improper list maintenance. In early 2018, the Department of Justice joined a lawsuit against the state filed by conservative activist group Judicial Watch. The DOJ alleged that, since 2009, Kentucky had violated federal law by failing to send postcards to verify that voters’ address records are up-to-date and accurate. The lack of checking, the DOJ claimed, resulted in a voter roll with numerous incorrect entries. The state signed a consent decree on July 3 that committed Kentucky to implementing the address-checking process now and in the future.

The process has revealed a significant number of outdated registrations. Almost 300,000 postcards have been returned as undeliverable, suggesting that those voters do not live at those registered addresses. That’s equivalent to about 8 percent of registered voters in the state.

But no further actions have been taken, and some staffers and board members believe that’s intentional. Dearing’s complaint alleges that the day the consent decree was signed, Grimes insisted he stop the address-checking process. A week later, after Dearing complained about the legality of the request, according to the complaint, then-assistant secretary of state Lindsay Hughes Thurston told him and Scutchfield they could restart, but they were to “slow walk” the process.

The delays have frustrated some county clerks. “That reflects on me,” said Griggs, the clerk in McCracken County. “My county. And I don’t like that.”

The Justice Department concluded that the SBE was dragging its heels, according to a letter DOJ attorney David Cooper sent to the state in mid-September. Kentucky had agreed to begin sending additional mailers before Aug. 8 and failed to do so. Among other things, the letter asserted that the SBE had “ceased” what had been productive working discussions “and directed that all further communication take place through outside counsel.” Cooper wrote that Kentucky had “fallen short of its obligations” under the consent decree. (Neither the DOJ nor Judicial Watch responded to requests for comment.)

Morgan, the lawyer Grimes retained for the SBE, responded to the DOJ letter, asserting that the Justice Department had in fact approved a delay in order to ensure no voter was unfairly disenfranchised. He has since claimed the same to board members, and emails show at least one board member has asked Morgan to send proof that the DOJ made such an agreement. To date, Morgan, who did not respond to a request for comment, has not done so.

Compliance with the consent decree has become a major part of one investigation of Grimes, according to people questioned by investigators. Kentucky’s attorney general appointed Mark Metcalf as an independent counsel last year, initially to examine the allegations raised by the SBE’s Dearing. Metcalf declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. (Grimes’ statement to ProPublica and the Herald-Leader did not address the issues raised about the consent decree.)

Grimes appears unlikely to change her approach even under the pressure of investigations. At the September SBE meeting, after the Executive Branch Ethics Commission issued an advisory opinion finding that her access to the voting registration system may require her to recuse herself from her role as chief elections officer in 2019 should she run for office, Grimes responded that the ethics commission was “all Republican” and that it was “attempting to try and justify their use of taxpayer dollars to have interference in this board.” She added, “No outside agency can determine how this board runs.”

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


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



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 or 502-582-7142. Follow him on Twitter. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today:

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



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



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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