Top Kentucky Democrat cleared of ethics charges stemming from access to voter rolls

Former Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has been cleared of ethics charges stemming from allegations that the one-time Democratic rising star abused her access to voter registration data to benefit herself and fellow Democrats.

Franklin County Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled Monday that Grimes legally accessed the data while “acting in the scope of her public duties” as secretary of state.

“It is unclear how the commission can penalize the commonwealth’s chief election official for having access to voter data, or downloading it to a flash drive when it has failed to identify any illegal or unethical use of such data,” Shepherd said in his order.


Grimes had faced a $10,000 fine after the state Executive Branch Ethics Commission said that she committed ethics violations by improperly ordering the downloading and distribution of voter registration data. The judge’s reversal of the commission’s order means Grimes won’t have to pay the fine.

Jon Salomon, one of Grimes’ attorneys, said Tuesday that the ruling vindicated Grimes.

“Secretary Grimes should have never been investigated for simply doing the job that Kentucky voters twice elected her to do, and the court has appropriately cleared her of all charges,” he said in a statement.

The commission said Tuesday that it is reviewing the matter.

Alison Lundergan Grimes

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes speaks with reporters, Nov. 14, 2019, in Frankfort, Ky. The former Kentucky secretary of state has been cleared of ethics charges stemming from allegations that the one-time Democratic rising star abused her access to voter registration data to benefit herself and fellow Democrats. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

Grimes was seen as a rising political star when she was first elected secretary of state in 2011. She launched a high-profile challenge against longtime Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014 but was soundly defeated. She rebounded to win reelection as secretary of state in 2015, when Republicans claimed most statewide offices. The only other Democrat to win that year was Andy Beshear, who was elected attorney general then and is now in his second term as governor.

The ethics commission’s allegations against Grimes stemmed from activity in 2015 and 2016. Grimes was accused of failing to follow government processes in downloading and sharing voter information.

She was accused of acting unethically by instructing her employees to download voter information onto flash drives while she was running for reelection and sharing voter registration information for state House districts, all without complying with open records rules or collecting fees.

Shepherd ruled that the allegations were “arbitrary and without the support of substantial evidence.” The judge said there is no law or regulation that prohibited her from accessing or sharing the information.

He noted that the long-running matter drew “exhaustive” investigations from the ethics commission and the state attorney general’s office, after which “there was no allegation concerning any substantive violation of any statute or regulation regarding the integrity of the voting rolls.”

Republican Michael Adams succeeded Grimes as Kentucky’s secretary of state. Adams’ office on Tuesday noted the changes made to state law in response to the allegations against his predecessor.

“Because of the scandals that preceded Secretary Adams in this office, the General Assembly in 2019 limited direct access to the voter file, and our administration has followed the letter and the spirit of the law,” Adams’ spokeswoman, Michon Lindstrom, said in a statement.

The judge also ruled that the ethics commission failed to meet the statute of limitations when bringing the claims against Grimes.


The commission’s charges followed a 2019 series from the Lexington Herald-Leader and ProPublica. The two news organizations published stories on Grimes’ conduct as secretary of state.

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