Judge dismisses ethics violations against former Secretary of State Grimes

Published 5:25 pm Tuesday, April 30, 2024

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Former Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes was cleared Monday by Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd of charges by the state Executive Branch Ethics Commission that she improperly ordered the downloading and distribution of voter registration data from her public office while she was Kentucky’s secretary of state.

“The court order is a complete vindication of Secretary Grimes,” said her attorney, Guthrie True of Frankfort.

Attorney Jon Salomon of Louisville, who also represented Grimes, said the order shows “there was no substantial violation of any ethics law and the counts against her were arbitrary. “She was just doing her job.”

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Grimes, reached Monday night, said, “After years of investigation, the Franklin Circuit Court has finally put to rest baseless allegations of ethics violations.”

She called the judge’s order “a victory for my staff, my administration and our work.”

The commission said it is reviewing the order and would decide whether to appeal. It had said in November 2021 that Grimes must pay $10,000 in fines for two ethical violations pertaining to handling of voter data.

The commission had been investigating Grimes for several years. Grimes, a Democrat and Lexington attorney, was secretary of state from 2011 to 2019 and an unsuccessful candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2014 against Republican Mitch McConnell. She is the daughter of former state Democratic Party Chair Jerry Lundergan.

As secretary of state, Grimes was the state’s chief elections officer. In her position, she had access to data from the state Voter Registration System in the State Board of Elections.

Shepherd, in his 33-page order released late Monday afternoon, agreed with Grimes’ arguments that the commission’s charges were barred by the five-year statute of limitations and that the record did not support a finding of any violations of the state executive branch’s code of ethics.

The commission had charged that Grimes violated the ethics code by sharing voter information without requiring an Open Records request or other “established process of government.”

Grimes submitted that all the voter data at issue was information in the public domain, that she had full legal authority and discretion as secretary of state to access and share such information. She claimed no statute or regulation was violated by the sharing of such public information. 

Shepherd faulted the Ethics Commission for not conducting an evidentiary hearing in the case to hear testimony from witnesses.

Because the commission acted against Grimes without a hearing, “the evidence in the record relied upon by Grimes is not disputed,” the judge’s order said.

He also said the complaint against Grimes was filed outside the applicable statute of limitations. 

He noted that the attorney general’s office and the Ethics Commission had been investigating for more than eight years allegations of misconduct by Grimes.

“After exhaustive investigation by both the attorney general and the Ethics Commission, there was no allegation concerning any substantive violation of any statute or regulation regarding the integrity of the voting roll,” the court order said. 

“There was no allegation of tampering with the voting rolls, no allegation of improper registration or voting, no allegation of any irregularity in any vote count or tabulation, no allegation of altering any identification of any voter, no allegation of any action that could impact the outcome of any election during Secretary Grimes’ tenure as chief state election officer.”

The order added that the attorney general’s office never brought any criminal charges against Grimes and that the matter was referred to the Ethics Commission. 

The only allegations pursued by the Ethics Commission were that Grimes allegedly acted unethically in accessing public information in the voter registration system by downloading voter information on to a thumb drive when she was a candidate for re-election.

The commission also looked at whether Grimes improperly shared information on new voter registrations for certain House districts in response to a request made informally through the office of the state House speaker without requiring a formal Open Records request or charging a fee. 

The judge noted that the commission’s final order did not dispute that Grimes would have lawful access to the voter data but that the crux of its complaint against Grimes was that she “downloaded the lists for a private purpose, without paying the mandatory fees or submitting sworn forms required by law.”

The court order said the commission failed to expressly allege what “private purpose” was served by placing voter data on a flash drive.

“What that ‘private purpose’ could have been is entirely unclear to the court,” the order said. “It further remains unclear what ‘established process of government’ was violated by Grimes’ act of downloading VRS data onto a flash drive. 

“This lack of detail relating to what ‘established government process’ was violated and how using a flash drive constitutes a violation of” cast doubt that the commission was proving its allegation by clear and convincing evidence, the order said.