Trial for Jerry Lundergan begins today

AP Photo/Adam Beam

Jerry Lundergan, father of Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, leaves the federal courthouse with his attorney, Whitney True Lawson, on Sept. 12, 2018, in Lexington. Lundergan is accused of making illegal campaign contributions to his daughter's 2014 U.S. Senate campaign.

FRANKFORT -- The trial for Jerry Lundergan, a prominent player in Kentucky Democratic Party politics for 40 years, opens in federal court today.

He's charged with conspiring to funnel illegal corporate contributions to the campaign of his daughter, Alison Lundergan Grimes, for the U.S. Senate in 2014.

Lundergan is also accused of falsifying campaign finance records to conceal what his indictment itemizes were more than $206,000 in services his company provided to Grimes' campaign.

Standing trial with Lundergan is longtime Democratic political consultant Dale Emmons, of Richmond, who worked for Grimes' unsuccessful bid to defeat Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.

Lundergan and Emmons have pleaded not guilty. When the indictment was returned a year ago, Lundergan attorney Guthrie True, of Frankfort, said, "It is no secret that Mr. Lundergan supported his daughter's bid for higher public service, but his efforts were always within the law."

The Kentucky Republican Party has a different take on the case. At the time of the indictment, its spokesman called the case "the most egregious campaign finance crime in the history of the commonwealth."

The trial is expected to last four weeks, unfolding amid this year's election campaign for governor and as McConnell is preparing to seek election to a seventh term in the U.S. Senate in 2020.

A jury of seven men and seven women (including two alternates) was seated on Thursday. Prosecutors said they expect to call 24 witnesses, including Jonathan Hurst, a Democratic strategist who served as a senior adviser to the Grimes campaign.

Defense attorneys said they may call an additional dozen witnesses, including Grimes.

Lundergan, 72, is a native of Maysville who for years has lived in Lexington, where he established a thriving catering business.

He ran to represent part of Lexington in the Kentucky House twice during the 1970s but was defeated in Democratic primaries by Steve Beshear -- contests that caused a lasting rift between between the two Democrats.

When Beshear decided to run for attorney general in 1979, Lundergan got elected to the seat in the House, where he served for eight years. He later went on to serve two stints as chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party and is known for his close ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton.

This is the second time Lundergan has stood trial in a case with political overtones. In the late 1980s, he was convicted of a felony in state court related to a $154,000 no-bid contract that one of his companies got from state government. An appeals court later threw out that conviction, ruling that Lundergan should have been charged with a misdemeanor, and prosecution of the misdemeanor was no longer possible because the statute of limitations had expired.

In 2011, Grimes, one of his five daughters, was elected Kentucky secretary of state. She was reelected to that office in 2015.

Between those elections she challenged the entrenched McConnell, who was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1984 and since 2015 has served as Senate majority leader.

With her father and other members of her large family at her side, Grimes launched her campaign for the Senate with great fanfare on July 30, 2013. And throughout the race, many polls portrayed her campaign as competitive. But on Election Day in 2014, she was trounced by McConnell, who got 56% of the vote to Grimes' 41%.

The indictment alleges Lundergan and Emmons engaged in a conspiracy that began with that July 2013 campaign kickoff. It alleges that more than $25,000 in video production, lighting and audio services surrounding that event were paid for by Lundergan's holding company -- not Grimes' campaign.

Prosecutors say many other later campaign expenses -- including at least $138,000 paid to Emmons -- were covered by Lundergan's company.

It further charges that Lundergan and Emmons caused false reports to be filed by the Grimes campaign with the Federal Election Commission, and that Lundergan only sought reimbursement from the campaign for the services they had provided much later, when grand jury subpoenas and search warrants showed federal authorities were investigating the matter.

Jurors in the case may hear arguments involving the complexities of campaign finance laws, the practices of how campaigns report contributions and expenses, and the impact of how court rulings have shaken up the world of campaign finance.

When Lundergan entered his plea of not guilty in September last year, True, his attorney, told reporters, "It's disturbing that major corporations and outside sources can come into Kentucky and spend tens of millions of dollars influencing elections in our state under the protection of the First Amendment, which I have no complaint about … but that a father could be subjected to criminal charges for using his own resources he's earned by the sweat of his own brow to help his daughter run for public office."

Last week, prosecutors won what may be an important preliminary battle in the case when U.S. District Judge Gregory Van Tatenhove ruled they will be allowed to present evidence that Lundergan also made corporate contributions to his daughter's two races for secretary of state.

True unsuccessfully argued that entering evidence of possible state campaign violations -- which Lundergan was never charged with -- would unfairly influence the jury's consideration of the federal charges at trial.

Also this week, Van Tatenhove denied Emmons' request to be tried separately for health reasons. Emmons said a separate trial would be shorter, making it easier to handle the stress.

Emmons, 67, who walked with the aid of a cane at the Frankfort federal building Thursday, said in a Facebook post last week he underwent heart surgery in 2016, had a stroke last year, and suffers from severe sleep apnea.

Van Tatenhove ruled he would try to accommodate Emmons by allowing him to leave the courtroom whenever necessary and by taking longer breaks.

If convicted, Lundergan and Emmons could face lengthy prison terms. Lundergan faces 10 counts, four of which carry a maximum prison term of 20 years, while the remaining have a maximum sentence of five years. Emmons faces six counts, two of which carry a maximum of 20 years, and four of which have a maximum sentence of five years.

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