The Kentucky Personnel Board will investigate whether Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes broke state law by relying on politics to influence hiring decisions for state workers.
The inquiry comes as Grimes, a Democrat, is considering challenging Republican Gov. Matt Bevin for re-election in 2019. The Personnel Board has seven members, five of whom are appointed by Bevin. But the allegations come from Jared Dearing, a Democrat and the executive director of the Kentucky State Board of Elections.
Dearing first revealed his concerns to the State Board of Elections last month. Grimes, as secretary of state, is that board's chairwoman. She called a special meeting to discuss the allegations. Two Republican members of the board tried to postpone the meeting, but Grimes cast the deciding vote. The board then met behind closed doors for hours before unanimously voting on a resolution reaffirming Grimes has access to the voter registration database and directing Dearing to report to her. Grimes did not vote on that resolution.
Friday, Dearing took his concerns to the Kentucky Personnel Board, which acts as an impartial judge of disputes between state government and its employees.
Dearing gave the board detailed records that showed Grimes' office accessed the voter registration information for two people who had applied for a job at the State Board of Elections. One applicant was a Democrat and the other was a Republican. Dearing said Grimes' staff urged him to hire the Democrat, even though he said the Republican was more qualified. Dearing hired the Republican, but he gave the Democrat a job as a contractor.
"I have been a Democrat since I was 18," Dearing said. "This is not about party politics. This is about the welfare of our system."
In a news release, Grimes' spokesman Bradford Queen said the "majority Republican" Personnel Board "has no jurisdiction to determine access to Kentucky's voter registration system."
"Any allegations that party affiliation has ever affected the hiring and personnel action of merit employees is unequivocally false and easily disproven," he said.
Grimes has said she needs access to the voter registration database to perform her duties as the state's chief election officer, which include certifying voter registration turnout. She has called Dearing's allegations "bizarre" and noted that Dearing's job performance had been "under review" at the time he first made his accusations.
Stephen Amato, a lawyer representing the State Board of Elections, said he could not respond to Dearing's specific allegations because this was the first time he had heard them.
"I will say I did not hear anything that suggested he had evidence a decision was made by the State Board of Elections to hire someone based on party affiliation," Amato said.
State law bans the government from hiring, firing, promoting or demoting people because of their "political or religious opinions" and "affiliations." Kentucky's voter registration database includes what party the voter is registered with, if any. It also includes an eight-year voting history. It does not say whom the person voted for, but it would record how many elections the person voted in.
Personnel Cabinet Secretary Thomas Stephens, also a Bevin appointee, told the board he was "disturbed" by the allegations.
"I cannot fathom any reason why anyone would need to access the database, this voter database, for the process of vetting someone involved in a merit job," he said.
Dearing also asked the Personnel Board to determine whether Grimes and her staff had created a hostile work environment. He said Grimes and her staff have intimidated him and other workers, including calling his family members to question his loyalty. Grimes has said that claim is "absurd," noting she has had a long relationship with Dearing's family and she has had "numerous communications" with them.
This story has been updated.