Richmond inspector general investigating city’s elections office

Richmond's election office is under investigation by the city's inspector general. (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

The Richmond Electoral Board met with the city’s inspector general in a closed session Wednesday following allegations of nepotism and financial improprieties in the election office led by Registrar Keith Balmer.

Inspector General James Osuna and members of the electoral board declined to comment when they emerged from the closed-door meeting, saying an investigation opened by the inspector general’s office is not yet complete.

A document The Virginia Mercury obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request earlier this year offers clues about what Osuna is looking into.

Last fall, an investigator in Osuna’s office contacted the State Department of Elections seeking assistance looking into a variety of complaints received from one of Balmer’s former employees. Investigator Michael Chodorov told state officials he hadn’t verified the accuracy of the information, but he relayed allegations about management “hiring family and friends,” questionable expenditures and other issues in the Richmond election office.

City authorities seemed to be under the impression the State Board of Elections should handle the matter due its role overseeing the work of registrars. In response, state officials said the complaint was a local concern because none of the claims had a direct tie to election policy or voting.

It’s unclear if the information in the ex-employee’s complaint has been verified or disproven, but both state and local officials have been made aware of it.

“Serious allegations have been made,” Electoral Board Chairman John Ambrose said Wednesday when asked about his level of concern based on what he’s heard. “And they’ll be seriously investigated.”

Balmer declined to comment.

In a sign the issues in Richmond are escalating, officials confirmed Wednesday that City Hall has taken steps to cut off purchasing cards issued to Balmer’s office. The office isn’t a city department under Mayor Levar Stoney’s control but still uses local funds.

Some claims of nepotism in the Richmond election office have already been made public. Earlier this year, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported Balmer had given his brother a job and paid his wife’s company $2,300 for training on how election workers can accommodate voters with disabilities. 

In a public back-and-forth among board members before Wednesday’s closed session, Electoral Board Member Starlet Stevens said the subject of the private discussion was “where the money is being spent.”

“It’s going to happen whether you like it or not, John, and you’re not going to shut me up on this,” Stevens said to Ambrose.

Ambrose shot back: “You’re out of order by making these comments.”

Stevens, a Republican, was the board chair heading into Wednesday’s meeting. But Ambrose, a Republican, and Board Member Joyce Smith, a Democrat, held a vote to oust her from that position prior to the closed session and make Ambrose the board’s new leader. They didn’t elaborate on the exact reason for that decision, but shortly after that move Ambrose and Smith voted to reinstate an election officer who had been removed from the role after some sort of physical altercation with Stevens. 

During the meeting, Stevens and the reinstated election officer briefly argued over who instigated the confrontation. There was no clear resolution to the matter apart from Stevens being demoted from chair and the election officer being reinstated.

It’s unclear where the signs of trouble in the Richmond election office might lead, but the inspector general’s unfinished investigation is occurring in a high-pressure presidential year, when election officials can least afford distraction and disruption.

In Virginia, city and county election offices are overseen by three-person electoral boards that operate independently of other local leaders but have the power to hire and fire registrars. Those unelected board members are appointed by local political parties and confirmed by judges. The party that won the last gubernatorial election automatically gets majority control of every electoral board in the state.

Balmer took over the Richmond election office from former registrar Kirk Showalter, who was removed in 2021 partly at the urging of the Democratic Party of Virginia. The Richmond Electoral Board is now under Republican control due to Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s victory in 2021, but that power shift didn’t impact Balmer’s job.

Past dysfunction in local election offices has inspired calls for state leaders to reform the system to usher in more professionalism and stability and shield registrars from political power struggles and feuds involving partisan board members.

City officials have also chastised Balmer several times for apparent violations of procurement policy in which his office signed contracts without proper authorization under the city government’s spending rules, according to documents obtained through a records request to the city.

The latest election-related contract to raise eyebrows at City Hall was an agreement signed with a security firm in January that envisions “personal protection services” for Balmer at an $85 hourly rate per guard. 

The contract estimates 45 hours of work per week at a minimum, adding up to a weekly cost of at least $3,825. The 40-week agreement is set to run from early February to Nov. 5, the day of the presidential election, indicating the costs could exceed $150,000.

Election officials throughout the country have faced threats following former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, an atmosphere that’s led to heightened security measures. 

The new security contract for the Richmond election office, signed with local firm HPi Unified, also envisioned six security training sessions for staff at a cost of $26,400.

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