Sorting out the Alison Grimes situation

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The past ten days have been tough for Alison Grimes. First the executive director of the State Board of Elections accuses her of multiple ethical and leadership lapses; then the state board affirms her in a resolution, even while the exec director says he stands by his statement. Then on Friday, her father and a fellow Dem consultant are indicted on federal campaign finance violations.

The issues are serious, and could be fatal to her political career. But there are also reasons to suspect there are political motivations behind the attacks.

I’ve got some thoughts about all of this that I’d like to share.

The ethics document from Jared Dearing

On first read, the 9-page document is pretty damning. There’s everything from Grimes inappropriately accessing the voter rolls, to her making fun of certain county clerks and directing her staff to ignore them, to slow-walking the voter roll clean-up that she agreed to with the U.S. Department of Justice, to creating a hostile work environment.

Some of the charges were cleared up in the resolution on Tuesday. She is allowed to access the voter rolls as part of her job. She is allowed to work with the voter rolls and county clerks to make sure we have enough poll workers.

The voter roll clean-up sounds much worse, on its face. If Grimes is trying to delay cleaning up the voter rolls before the mid-terms, that could be construed as messing with the election. And the KY GOP has, of course, jumped on that charge to file their own ethics complaint.

Grimes disputes the charge, and says she never told them to slow-walk anything. The salient fact that is missing in the discussion, though, is the terms of the agreement. (Read our long analysis of it to really understand what happened.)

The SOS office had to send out the “have you moved” cards by August 8. They did that. They are then supposed to use the return of the card, or the lack of a return, to start tagging those records for possible removal IF those people do not vote this year. And, they are supposed to report on their progress by the end of September. Note: Report on their progress, not be finished by then.

It is entirely possible that Grimes told her staff not to spend so much time scanning in the cards and tagging the records, and to use their time on other more pressing issues. In other words, she did the normal thing of utilizing her staff the way she saw fit.

Do I know what really happened? No, of course not. The only people who know are the people in that office, including Grimes and Dearing. What I am saying is that this charge that looks alarming on its face could actually be a twisting of a fairly normal decision in a staff setting.

Could the Dearing incident be political and not ethical?

One of the possibilities that immediately came to mind when this broke into the news was that it was a political hit and not really about ethics.

I was suspicious of the fact that it hit the news as quickly as it did. If Dearing is truly concerned about the ethics of the situation, why did he also release his letter to the press? And if he didn’t, who did, and why? Following Grimes’s strong performance at Fancy Farm, it certainly could be timed to cause damage.

But why would a fellow Democrat take a political hit at Grimes, a Democrat? A possibility came through a tweet.

A friend commented on Twitter after the story broke that it looks like the Beshears are planning a “scorched earth” primary next year, and that “a pardon goes a long way.” When I asked what this friend meant, he pointed me to a story about Governor Beshear pardoning Jared Dearing’s father-in-law in the final days of Steve Beshear’s term as governor.

Could the Beshears be calling in a favor by having Jared Dearing file the ethics complaint and share the letter with the press, thus going after one of Andy Beshear’s main rivals for the governorship?

I called a friend of mine who has been involved in Kentucky politics for decades, and this friend said they couldn’t see it. According to this person, the Beshears don’t operate that way, and this person doubted that this was designed to be a political hit by the Beshears at Grimes.

The three salient facts we do know are that the Lundergans and the Beshears don’t care for each other; Andy Beshear has declared for the governor’s race next year; and Alison Grimes is rumored to be considering running. Those facts, of course, don’t lead to any certainty about this being a political hit. But, we also can’t take the Dearing letter only at face value.

The Lundergan indictments

By now you’ve no doubt read all about the indictments of Jerry Lundergan, Alison’s father, and Dale Emmons, a well-known Democratic campaign consultant. They are charged with multiple counts of campaign finance violations related to Alison’s 2014 campaign against Senator Mitch McConnell. If you need to catch up, you can read our story about it.

Long-time followers of Kentucky politics may remember that there was another issue raised during that campaign, that being the cost of the bus that the campaign rented from a business owned by Jerry Lundergan. The complaint alleged that the rental rate was way below market, thus being an in-kind contribution to the campaign from the business that had not been reported. That complaint caused a lot of talk, but was eventually dismissed.

These charges look far worse. They involve various campaign expenses paid by Jerry Lundergan by moving money through a company owned by Lundergan and chargebacks by Emmons, none of which were reported on campaign finance reports. If true, these are clear campaign finance violations.

According to the indictments, the campaign did not know of these payments on the behalf of the campaign, and so filed incorrect reports. Note that neither Alison Grimes nor anyone in the campaign is charged.

It’s easy to say “well, Alison should have known something was fishy when there were no expenses for this event or that event.” I spoke to someone who has worked on numerous large campaigns, and that person said this isn’t the case. Even though there is a clear limit on donations to campaigns, and a big event would cost much more than that limit, this person said it was common for multiple donors to pool their donations to pay for an event. In the whirlwind that is a major campaign, the candidate has to trust her staff to take care of tracking and reporting, and the staff has to trust that donors are telling the truth. And in a campaign that is raising and spending millions of dollars, the amounts allegedly spent by Lundergan and Emmons, spread over multiple events, would probably not have been obvious.

Could the Lundergan indictments be a political hit?

It’s one thing to assert that a document produced by one person might be politically motivated; it’s another thing entirely to assert that federal indictments, brought by a U.S. attorney, are politically motivated.

The indictments came out of the Eastern District of Kentucky. The U.S. attorney there, Robert Duncan, is a Trump appointee, having been appointed in November 2017. However, he has served as an assistant U.S. attorney in that same office for years, so his appointment is no surprise. It is hard to imagine that he would risk his appointment by engaging in a political hit that could be found out and blow up his career.

The one thing that gives me pause is the fact that recently-appointed Brian Bencskowski was there in his new role as Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice. Bencskowski was just confirmed in July, and his nomination was controversial because of his work on behalf of Alfa Bank, a Russian bank closely tied to Putin. Bencskowski has refused to recuse himself on matters related to the Mueller investigation.

So, Bencskowski is confirmed in July, and one month later shows up at the press conference announcing the Lundergan indictments. Is it definitive proof that there was a political angle to the indictments? No, of course not. But both the timing of the indictments, coming the same week as the Dearing letter, and the presence of Bencskowski, certainly make one wonder.

We are left with a simple 2×2 matrix when it comes to the Lundergan indictments:

  1. Guilty — Not politically motivated
  2. Not guilty — Not politically motivated
  3. Guilty — But also politically motivated
  4. Not guilty — Politically motivated

Based on the actions alleged in the indictment document, the charges against Lundergan and Emmons are strong. The question of guilt will eventually be decided through the courts. The political angle, on the other hand, may never be known for sure.

Where does this leave Alison Grimes?

In his column on these events, Joe Gerth began with “20 or 25 years from now when she tries to revive her political career.” That is certainly the common wisdom these days.

I’m not in that camp. Not yet. The Dearing letter was refuted to some extent by the actions of the Board of Elections. Its accusations still linger, and the KY GOP ethics complaint still is out there. But unless the ethics complaint turns into something substantive, instead of the obvious political play it is now, I think she survives the Dearing incident.

The indictments don’t implicate her directly at all. The problem is going to be the perception that she should have known. The bigger problem is the probably final destruction of the Lundergan brand. She has claimed a connection to that brand since she started in public life, keeping that name as part of her own brand and tying herself to the power of that brand in Democratic politics.

The best outcome for Alison Grimes? If the ethics complaint is dismissed, and her father is found innocent, she will have a platform from which to call out Republicans for their sleazy attacks against her. She can claim vindication, and perhaps continue her climb back to electoral victory that seemed on the right track after Fancy Farm.

And if she can prove that one or both of the events were actually planned as political hits against her, it adds to that platform.

I think Alison Grimes still has a political future, and I don’t think it is 25 years off. But unless both of those best-case scenarios happen before January, I think she is out of the mix for state-wide office in 2019.

And if either or both of these events were planned as political attacks against her, it looks as if they succeeded.

(Feel free to share your comments below.)

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Bruce Maples
Bruce Maples has been involved in politics and activism since 2004, when he became active in the Kerry Kentucky movement. He has been President, Vice-President, and Treasurer of the Metro Democratic Club, and has served on the Democratic Party Executive Committee in Louisville. He began blogging in 2004, and currently operates two personal blogs (BruceMaples.com and brucewriter.com). He founded Forward Kentucky in the wake of the state elections in 2015, and expanded it in the summer of 2016. He has lived in Louisville since 1992 with his wife and two sons.