A federal jury found two longtime Democratic operatives guilty Thursday of funneling illegal corporate campaign contributions into Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’ 2014 U.S. Senate campaign, delivering another blow to a significantly weakened Kentucky Democratic Party.
The jury convicted former Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan, the father of Grimes, on 10 charges and Democratic political consultant Dale Emmons on 6 charges after federal prosecutors alleged they had a “concerted scheme” to funnel more than $200,000 into Grimes’ election efforts without seeking reimbursement from the campaign.
The most serious charges could each carry a maximum of 20 years in prison for each man. As the clerk read the verdict, someone among Lundergan’s supporters let out a soft cry.
J. Guthrie True, Lundergan’s attorney, said the defendants were “disappointed” by the verdict but knew they were taking a chance by taking the case to a jury. True said the verdict will be appealed.
“We would intend to take this appeal as high as possible,” True said.
The verdict, which the jury reached in less than 2.5 hours, delivers a blow to the political future of Grimes, who was once seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party, although no evidence was presented that suggested Grimes knew about the illegal contributions.
It also wounds two Democratic Party stalwarts who have had a hand in campaigns since at least the ‘70s. Lundergan served two terms as chairman of the state party and built up control over a faction of the party. Emmons had worked on hundreds of campaigns from the state House to the U.S. Senate.
The verdict caused Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, to appoint a commonwealth’s attorney to investigate potential state campaign finance violations that were used as evidence in the case.
“Given today’s verdict, the Office of the Attorney General is in the process of appointing a commonwealth’s attorney that will have the jurisdiction to independently evaluate evidence from the federal trial and take any steps that are warranted under state law,” said Deputy Attorney General J. Michael Brown.
For nearly five weeks, lawyers defending Lundergan and Emmons threw everything they had at the jury. They kept government witnesses on the stand for hours, searching for holes in their testimony and trying to convince jurors that any potential illegal payments were honest missteps.
“You don’t convict people for mistakes,” True told jurors in his closing argument.
The jury sided with government prosecutors, who made the case that Lundergan and Emmons knew exactly what they were doing when they declined to bill the campaign for various expenses in 2013 and 2014. Evidence showed Lundergan was paying Emmons $20,000 a month in 2013 as Grimes’ campaign was getting off the ground.
Their assertion was bolstered by evidence suggesting Lundergan made improper payments to support Grimes’ state campaigns for secretary of state in 2011 and 2015.
That evidence included that Lundergan gave $20,000 cash and a $25,000 check with the subject line “Boy Scouts” to the government’s key witness, former Grimes campaign manager Jonathan Hurst, in 2015. The alleged state campaign finance violations have not resulted in any state charges against Lundergan.
“Innocent mistakes do not happen over a four year period, repeatedly,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew T. Boone said in his closing argument.
Defense attorneys attempted to keep prosecutors from using evidence about the state races, but U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove allowed prosecutors to present it to the jury. True said the evidence was damaging to Lundergan and Emmons.
“Terrible,” True said. “Really created a challenge when that evidence came in.”
The decision to allow that evidence is likely to be part of the appeal by Lundergan and Emmons.
Over the course of the trial, defense attorneys attacked the credibility of Hurst, calling him a “monster,” and painting him as a manipulative liar who abused his close relationship with the Lundergan family for financial gain. However, Hurst’s attorney, Scott C. Cox of Louisville, said Thursday that Hurst had told the truth to prosecutors, the federal grand jury and the trial jury, which was reflected in the verdict.
“Jonathan Hurst has been unfairly maligned over the last three weeks in federal court,” Cox said. “Jonathan never did anything wrong.”
Lundergan was convicted of a felony in 1989 for “improperly using his influence to gain a state contract,” according to the Associated Press, but that conviction was overturned on appeal.
Defense attorneys had argued that there was no reason for Lundergan to try to illegally funnel money into the campaign because Grimes raised more than $2.5 million in the first quarter of the campaign. Boone said that while the campaign eventually had a lot of money, it did not have much early on, giving Lundergan a powerful motive to under-bill the campaign to make Grimes appear as a serious challenger to U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell.
Prosecutors said the case was important because actions by Lundergan and Emmons undermined the integrity of elections.
“The simplest explanation for this is that Jerry Lundergan just didn’t care about the law,” Boone said.