Connect with us

Politics

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.


Politics

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

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading

Politics

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

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading

Politics

Kentucky Aluminum Plant Investor Is Russian Company Formerly Under US Sanctions

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading

Trending