This story was co-published with the Lexington Herald-Leader.
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.