In Kenton Judge's Race, Prosecutor Endorses Candidate to Former Grand Jury Members
This story has been updated with comments from Kenton Co. Commonwealth's Attorney Rob Sanders:
Some of the most flagrant campaign tactics are unleashed on the eve of an election.
In Louisville last week, Metro Council candidate Jessica Green mailed fliers accusing rival Attica Scott of having flown to Arizona to “support illegal immigrants." Scott replied that she last visited Arizona “maybe 20 years ago.”
Now, from Kenton County, in Northern Kentucky, comes word of a new play on an old ploy: an endorsement letter -- on personal but official-looking stationery -- from a sitting politician in support of an employee running for office.
The May 1 letter was signed by Kenton Commonwealth’s Attorney Rob Sanders on behalf of his assistant James Redwine, one of five candidates in tomorrow’s primary election for circuit court judge. Sanders' office prosecutes all felonies in Kenton County, the third most populous county in Kentucky with 160,000 residents.
Three things make the endorsement letter unusual:
* Although Redwine’s campaign adviser, Brian Richmond, says the letter was typed on Sanders’ personal stationery, the header -- showing the seal of Kentucky and Sanders’ title, “Commonwealth’s Attorney, 16th Judicial Circuit - Kenton County” -- looks official.
* The one-page form letter opens, “Dear Grand Juror.” Redwine confirmed that more than 500 such letters were mailed to grand jurors.
* In small print below Sanders’s signature as “Commonwealth’s Attorney” is the disclosure, “Paid for by Redwine for Judge Committee.”
The letter was obtained last week by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting from a Covington businessman who sat on a Kenton grand jury two years ago. The businessman, who asked that his name not be printed, also sent a copy of the envelope, which shows a Sanders return address of P.O. Box 2345 in Covington.
"The names and addresses of all jurors are matters of public record," Sanders said. "There is nothing inappropriate about me mailing a letter to them asking them to vote for Jim. Each of the grand jurors has spent quite a bit of time with all our prosecutors every Thursday morning for four months of their lives. They know all of us personally. It is a very appropriate group for us to target for support."
Asked about the practice of sending campaign material to grand jurors -- whose names are ordinarily kept secret to protect them from reprisal by criminal defendants -- Redwine said, “I think it’s appropriate.”
Asked if his tactic had been used before, he said, “I don’t know if there’s a precedent or not.”
With that, Redwine cut off the interview. “If you have an agenda, I’m not really interested in speaking to you,” he said.
Sanders said that he got the idea from former Kenton Co. Commonwealth's Attorney Jay O'Hara, who served from 1958-1976, maintained a list of everyone that served on his grand juries. "So it has been done," Sander said.
"It's unfortunate that candidates for Circuit Court Judge don't know that juror names and addresses are public record," Sanders said. "It just goes to show their lack of experience with the Circuit Court system."
Redwine faces four opponents in his race to fill the Circuit Court vacancy left by the retiring Martin Sheehan. All said they had seen copies of the Sanders endorsement letter. They reacted with varying degrees of concern.
“I’m concerned about the use of the seal of Kentucky and the office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney to endorse a candidate who will be adjudicating cases in front of the endorser,” said Bob Winter, a lawyer in private practice.
Candidate Kathy Lape was also disturbed by the letter.
“People go into service as a juror -- and then they end up on someone’s campaign list?” she said. “That’s terrible. There’s something wrong with that.”
Candidate Jason Hiltz, an assistant prosecutor in Boone and Gallatin counties, said of the letter: “It does raise questions. In my experience working as a prosecutor for 12-plus years in two different circuits, prosecutors and judges put a definite emphasis on the secrecy of the grand jury.”
Hiltz took the matter to the Kentucky Judicial Campaign Conduct Committee, a non-partisan body that serves as an unofficial referee in judicial elections. It took a pass.
“The (Redwine) campaign’s use of an endorsement letter to grand jurors on official stationery may raise an issue of the proper use of a public office, one that is filled by a partisan election, but that is a question of ethics and fairness, and the Committee has not assigned itself the responsibility of resolving such questions, absent other issues,” the committee’s secretary, Al Cross, wrote to Hiltz.
But it could find a hearing before the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission, which investigates complaints of misconduct by judicial candidates.
Stephen Wolnitzek, a Covington lawyer who serves as chairman of that group, said he had not heard of any instances of judicial candidates sending mailers to grand jurors. He added, “If that were brought to our attention, we would probably look at it.”
A spokesman for the Kentucky Attorney General’s office said there was no recollection among staff as to the appropriateness of county prosecutors soliciting votes from grand jurors. The Kentucky Bar Association did not respond to an inquiry last Friday.
The fifth candidate, Covington lawyer Kate Molloy, said she was aware of the letter but hadn't pursued it.
But Winter, a candidate who practices civil law, said the matter merits an investigation.
“Our grand jury system is sacred and is very fundamental to our system of jurisprudence, and it concerns me that a list of jurors may have been turned into a voter list,” he said. “It ought to be inquired about.”
"Each candidate who criticized using this database of public records is also using a database of primary voters which comes complete with their addresses and is sending those voters mailers," Sanders said. He noted that one way jurors are selected for duty is by being registered to vote. "This is no different that the publicly available database of voters. There is no difference between using either database."
Reporter James McNair can be reached at [email protected] or (502) 814.6543. Reporter Kristina Goetz contributed to this article. Sanders's quotes were gathered by The River City News and added after this article was originally published and indicated that Sanders did not return calls for comment.
This article was produced by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, a new nonprofit newsroom from Louisville Public Media. You can read more at kycir.org.