After the May 2016 Democratic primary in Pike County, the Kentucky attorney general’s office built a felony case against a private detective, Keith Justice, who confronted voters at their homes, followed them in their vehicles and interfered with poll workers inside the Phelps precinct. On the ballot that day was a hotly contested race involving his client, state Senate Democratic Leader Ray Jones of Pikeville.
One poll worker said she was so upset by Justice’s aggressive questions about alleged voter fraud that she had to take her heart medicine. Others cried. That night, more than two hours after polls closed, Pike County officials at the courthouse wondered why they hadn’t heard from the Phelps precinct and couldn’t reach the workers by telephone, according to the attorney general’s investigative case file, recently obtained by the Herald-Leader.
Justice pleaded guilty in August to reduced charges: five misdemeanor counts of attempting to intimidate election officers and attempting to interfere with an election. He was sentenced to 30 days of home incarceration and a $500 fine; he also surrendered his private detective’s license for one year.
What the attorney general’s office didn’t do is have a conversation with Jones, who was Justice’s employer when he committed his crimes. According to the private detective, Jones paid him to conduct surveillance in the remote communities of eastern Pike County in the days leading up to the Democratic primary. Jones was challenged in that primary by Glenn Martin Hammond, a fellow Pikeville lawyer, whom Jones defeated.
Help us deliver journalism that makes a difference in our community.
Our journalism takes a lot of time, effort, and hard work to produce. If you read and enjoy our journalism, please consider subscribing today.
“I was hired to monitor the activities going on over around Phelps,” Justice told investigators for the FBI and the attorney general a few days after the primary, according to the attorney general’s investigative case file. Justice confirmed that Jones hired him. When the investigators pressed him to provide more specifics about the work he produced for Jones, Justice said, “Tell you what, why don’t you talk to Ray? I think that will clear things up.”
However, Jones refused to speak to the attorney general’s office about the episode.
Matt Easter, an attorney general’s investigator, left a phone message with Jones requesting an interview. Easter’s call was returned instead by Frankfort attorney J. Guthrie True. Speaking on the senator’s behalf, True said that Jones hired the detective to figure out who was stealing his campaign signs. True said Jones did not direct Justice to enter a voting precinct or to question anyone.
After True finished talking, Easter told the lawyer that he still wanted to speak directly to Jones about the case and ask some follow-up questions.
“True advised that he would get back with me after speaking with Jones,” Easter wrote in his notes. But True never did. “I attempted to re-contact True on a couple of occasions, but I have not heard anything additional from him concerning this investigation.”
That’s where the attorney general’s office left it with Jones 17 months ago, although as a state senator, Jones keeps an office in the Capitol not far from where Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear works.
Beshear spokesman Terry Sebastian said the attorney general’s office did not pursue Jones further because it concluded he would not be a target in the case.
“The prosecutor and investigator in this matter jointly determined that there was no credible evidence implicating Jones. And it was clear that Jones would not talk with them,” Sebastian said. “While they wanted to interview Jones, they both determined that there was sufficient evidence to move forward with the prosecution against Justice.”
The Herald-Leader recently called Jones for comment on the case. True returned the call, as he did with the attorney general’s office. True said Jones did not authorize Justice to commit crimes during the Democratic primary. But to be cautious, True said, he advised Jones to not speak with prosecutors.
“It was at my direction, at that point in time, that Ray not say anything further because we really didn’t have a good handle on what was being investigated and who was saying what to whom. A lot of times under those kinds of circumstances, I feel the less said, the better,” True said.
True would not elaborate on why Jones hired Justice, other than to say that anything Justice did that was illegal “is not what he was paid for.” In a July interview with the Herald-Leader, Jones said he only hired Justice to investigate the theft of his campaign signs.
Hammond, the defeated Senate candidate, said in a recent interview that he and his supporters were followed around by “suspicious figures” in the days leading up to the primary, discouraging some from going to the polls. Hammond said he wants answers about exactly what happened in Pike County last year.
“How long had Keith Justice been engaged in these surveillance activities? Exactly what surveillance activities was he engaged in, for that matter? How much was Ray paying him and from where, from his personal funds or his campaign funds or what?” Hammond asked.
“It was deeply disappointing to me that there was no real investigation into Ray’s role in all of this,” Hammond said. “Eastern Kentucky politics has been described as a bloodsport, not as something that advances our region in any constructive manner, and unfortunately, it’s true.”
A knock on the door
In his interview with the FBI and attorney general’s office last year, Justice said Jones hired him to observe eastern Pike County in the days leading up to the primary. Justice said he soon focused on one man — the man’s name was redacted from the case file before it was released — who drove a county-assigned pickup truck. He followed the man to people’s houses and elsewhere around the region to see who he interacted with, Justice said.
“The guy was stealing signs. And I got proof that he was stealing signs,” Justice said.
It’s not clear how Justice’s sign-theft investigation ended. In August, several residents of eastern Pike County told the Herald-Leader that Justice trailed them during this time and questioned them about “vote hauling,” the practice of giving people a ride to the polls. Justice showed a badge and introduced himself as a “state voting inspector,” they said, although there is no such position in Kentucky. Justice did have a badge as a retired sergeant in the Kentucky State Police Division of Commercial Vehicle Enforcement.
Robert Mapes said he stopped at his Freeburn home for lunch on the day of the Democratic primary after driving several car loads of elderly or otherwise isolated voters to cast their ballots. Justice knocked on his door, entered and flashed a badge, Mapes said. Justice wore a holstered handgun on his belt, he added.
“He pulled out a notebook and said, ‘I need the names of every voter you hauled to the polls today to make sure you weren’t buying votes,’” Mapes said. “I turned out my pockets to show him I didn’t have any money for anybody or from anybody. I’m not breaking the law. I ain’t going to jail for nobody!”
Another local man, Jacky Darrell Smith, told the Herald-Leader that Justice followed him while he carried primary voters to the polls. The detective never approached him directly, Smith said, but he stopped to question at least two women he transported after they left his vehicle.
“He was asking people, ‘What’s Jacky doing up here?’” Smith said. “He was just being arrogant. Most people probably would have gone home if they had someone following them like that, but I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wasn’t breaking any laws.”
The bathroom interviews
Justice told the FBI and attorney general’s investigators that he and a female assistant drove around to several different voting precincts in eastern Pike County on the afternoon of the Democratic primary. They took photos and watched vote-haulers arrive with people, Justice said. Some people carried oversized sample ballots that were marked to identify which Democrats they intended to support, Justice said.
“We kept seeing them, and at first, I didn’t have no idea what that paper was,” Justice said.
Shortly before polls closed at 6 p.m., Justice said, he sent his assistant home and entered the Phelps precinct in the lobby of Phelps High School.
First, he collected some of the marked sample ballots that voters left behind on tables. They were marked for Hammond, Jones’ Senate opponent, and other Democrats running in different races.
Next, Justice began taking each of the four poll workers — all women — into a nearby bathroom to individually question them about what he perceived as voting irregularities. Who were these vote haulers? What was the deal with these marked sample ballots people brought with them?
Justice said he clearly explained to the women that he was a private detective, not a law-enforcement officer, but they were eager to open up to him, anyway.
“They said, ‘Ooh, oh my gosh I knew it, we’re in trouble, we’re in so much trouble!’” Justice told the investigators. “I said, ‘What?’ They said, ‘We’re in trouble! We knew he was doing wrong. We knew, when you come up, that we were in trouble.’”
Justice told the investigators that if they wanted to see his final report on the case, they would need to ask Jones for it, because Jones was his client.
‘We thought he was FBI’
The poll workers told investigators a somewhat different story.
They said Justice — a beefy man in a black polo shirt and khaki slacks — gave the impression that he was a law-enforcement officer investigating voter fraud. They said they believed they were legally compelled to assist him, even if it interrupted their work running the precinct and closing it on time to return its equipment to the courthouse in Pikeville so votes could be counted.
And they didn’t appreciate being taken into the bathroom by him.
“Keith Justice came in and showed us a badge, asked what people were bringing in white sheets (for),” poll worker Geroldine Coleman wrote in a statement for investigators.
“He interviewed all four workers, took written statements, plus taped us,” Coleman wrote. “I was upset and nervous. I am on heart medicine. Jenny Kender, the clerk, cried. I had to use a nitroglycerin (pill). We were really late to get to courthouse to give results. We were told not to let no one in by Mr. Justice. He left and brought back a lady. We thought he was FBI — he showed a badge — or law enforcement.”
Another poll worker, Mirhonda Page, also told investigators that Justice would not let people enter the precinct while he carried out his tasks.
“He asked us some questions and then left for about 15 minutes and came back. He told us not to let anyone in the precinct while he was gone. He came back and interviewed all of us. Recorded us with a hand-held device. We were very upset,” Page said. “I thought he was with the FBI or some kind of other government agency.”
By 8:15 p.m., rumors swirled around Pike County that the FBI had locked down the Phelps precinct. County officials at the courthouse still hadn’t heard from Phelps High School and couldn’t reach the poll workers by phone, so the sheriff dispatched a deputy to check on them. Fifteen minutes later, the poll workers finally walked in with a story to tell.
If Justice or Jones ever built a case against anyone for sign theft or voter fraud, they never seemed to share their evidence with the proper authorities, investigators noted to Justice in their interview.
Hammond, Jones’ opponent in the Senate race, said it’s going too far for a political candidate to hire a detective who follows people around their communities and interferes with poll workers at the election site.
“I know that I was tailed. I received warnings, and others received the same warnings, that I was being tailed and watched. That’s pretty disturbing when all you’ve done is run for office and now you’re being harassed,” Hammond said. “You’re not being paranoid when there really is someone following you.”