By Carson Kessler /ProPublica
This article was originally published by ProPublica. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
Kentucky’s Executive Branch Ethics Commission accused Democratic former Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes of misusing her office for personal and political purposes, according to an initiating order filed by the commission on Thursday.
The news comes nearly three years after ProPublica and the Lexington Herald-Leader investigated many of the same issues in a three-part series, extensively detailing Grimes’ “questionable” and “unprecedented” use of the state’s voter registration system as well as the “power grab” that gave her unusual sway over the State Board of Elections.
Grimes did not immediately respond to a request for comment; she previously defended her conduct in comments to ProPublica at the time of the series. If found to have run afoul of the code, Grimes could face fines of $5,000 for each violation.
The Kentucky ethics commission alleges that Grimes committed two violations. First, that she “used her position to direct her subordinates to use state time and resources to download and store information from the Voter Registration System onto flash drives for a personal, private purpose without following the established processes of government to obtain the information.” And second, that before the 2016 election: “Grimes used her position to direct her subordinates to use state time and resources to engage in political activities. Grimes directed an independent contractor of her agency to create lists of newly registered democratic voters and then directed a subordinate employee to email the lists to some democratic candidates.”
According to the initiating order, the ethics commission’s preliminary investigation of Grimes began in July 2017 and was expanded three times in the years that followed, including in 2020.
The series of articles by ProPublica and the Herald-Leader, which appeared in early 2019, noted the existence of state investigations into Grimes’ alleged misuse of the voter registration system. But the series broadly expanded what was publicly known about the matter, revealing, among other things, that the records searches conducted by Grimes’ staff “were extensive and targeted prominent state politicians, including gubernatorial candidate Rocky Adkins, who could have been Grimes’ opponent in the Democratic primary.” (Grimes, the article noted, ultimately decided not to run for governor.) Documents revealed Grimes and her staff looked up current and former employees, a federal judge, the state education commissioner, every member of the Kentucky Board of Education and even several members of the ethics commission who were investigating Grimes.
The series also showed how Grimes gained broad control over the Kentucky State Board of Elections. That ultimately allowed her to expedite a no-bid contract with a cybersecurity company owned by a political donor, as well as to delay a consent decree mandating that she clean the state’s voter rolls to improve accuracy.
Grimes was first elected as secretary of state in 2011, and again in 2015. She left office when her term expired in 2019, and she was barred from running again because of a state term limit. She attracted media attention in 2014 when she ran a spirited, but unsuccessful, senatorial campaign against Mitch McConnell in Republican-dominated Kentucky.
The ethics commission also filed an initiating order against Erica Galyon, who worked as assistant secretary of state under Grimes, claiming that she mishandled records requests in 2018 and 2019. The commission asserts that Galyon directed staff of the State Board of Elections to provide documents to Grimes’ personal legal counsel in response to an open records request, but that she later denied the same documents to a member of the news media who requested them. That member of the news media was Jessica Huseman, then a reporter for ProPublica and the co-author of the series on Grimes. Galyon could not immediately be reached for comment.