KY’s Secretary of State still works for outside clients, including 2020 election denier
Secretary of State Michael Adams is still practicing election law for out-of-state clients, including the U.S. Senate campaign of an attorney involved in former president Donald Trump’s attempt to undermine the 2020 presidential election.
Adams served as counsel on newly-elected Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach’s unsuccessful 2020 campaign for U.S. Senate. The campaign got itself in hot water with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) when it was found to have improperly used a nonprofit group’s email list. At issue was Kobach’s campaign underpaying for access to an email list from We Build The Wall, a nonprofit that raised money for a privately built wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a key priority of the Trump administration, but now faces fraud charges in New York State.
Adams continued to work on Kobach’s campaign committee through his first term as Kentucky’s top elections official (Adams is seeking reelection in 2023). He most recently signed paperwork – on Nov. 3, just five days before the 2022 general election – affirming a conciliation agreement between Kobach, his committee, the committee treasurer and We Build The Wall. Kobach’s Senate campaign began in 2019 before Adams was elected Secretary of State.
Continuing outside employment as a statewide constitutional officer is unusual, but not illegal. No other current executive branch office holder holds outside employment.
In an interview with the Herald-Leader, Adams said he works with other clients on election cases as well, but not in a way that takes time away from his day job overseeing Kentucky’s elections. The time commitment to outside work, he said, is minimal and consists of mostly “legacy clients.” He said he only works for his private practice through consulting calls that generally amount to “a few hours a week,” largely focused on compliance with election law.
“Most of my work is done at night or on weekends, but you’re talking about a few hours a week. Even then, it’s not a huge time commitment on my part,” Adams said.
The fact that Adams has continued working on the side as secretary of state is not widely known, but it’s also not a secret. Throughout his tenure, Adams has filed financial disclosures with the Executive Ethics Branch Commission indicating his outside employment through his firm, Chalmers & Adams. His office also shared an outside employment request form submitted by Adams and approved by his own assistant secretary of state.
Adams also made the argument that his continued employment in out-of-state work – he emphasized that he only takes work beyond Kentucky’s borders – helps keep him “on the cutting edge” of policy.
“I certainly can see that it’s unusual to have a Secretary of State with an election practice on the side, albeit outside of Kentucky,” Adams said. “But I’m unusual in the sense that I’m the first person that ever ran for this who actually brought these kinds of credentials to the position… It actually makes me better at my state job, to have my toe in some other things on the side, just because I’m exposed to so much more information. It keeps me fresh – I’m on the cutting edge of legal and policy developments in other states.”
In discussing the matter with the Herald-Leader, Adams attempted to draw a contrast between himself and Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, whose campaign for attorney general did not directly respond to inquiries about clients in 2014. “Unlike Andy Beshear, I’m actually talking to you,” he said.
The credentials Adams brought to the role in 2019? He built a legal career working political cases for prominent Republicans and Republican organizations across the country. For 12 years up until his election to office, Adams served as general counsel to the Republican Governors Association. He also helped build his own practice over several years.
Furthermore, Adams appears to have been working for the nonprofit and political action committee of likely 2024 GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley as of mid-2022.
In a story from POLITICO on Haley’s political nonprofit – a 501(c)(4) organization, Stand For America, formed as the former South Carolina governor has laid the groundwork for a presidential bid rollout – a Michael Adams is mentioned as an attorney performing work for the group.
Adams’ firm is listed on the FEC’s website as having performed $43,000 of work for Stand For America PAC in 2021 and 2022. Stand For America – the nonprofit – and Stand For America PAC are technically two different Haley-aligned organizations.
Adams’ press team has not responded to requests for comment on whether the Adams mentioned in the POLITICO story is, indeed, the Kentucky secretary of state.
The story states that Adams wrote a cease and desist letter on behalf of “the Haley team” in order to try and stop the story the outlet wrote last August about the identity of the funders of Haley’s nonprofit in 2019. In 2019 and 2020, the nonprofit received more than $17 million in donations. The PAC – which, unlike the nonprofit, has to disclose its donations to the FEC – has received about $17 million since its inception in early 2021.
Adams told the Herald-Leader that while he maintains his partner status at Chalmers & Adams, he has no management role in the firm.
Kobach served two terms as Kansas secretary of state before unsuccessful campaigns for governor in 2018 and U.S. Senate in 2020. He won a close race for state attorney general in 2022.
He has gained notoriety for his hardline stance on immigration as well as his role in Trump’s attempt to reverse the results of the 2020 presidential election based on the false premise that Trump actually defeated President Joe Biden. Kobach co-chaired Trump’s Election Integrity Commission, which found no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2016 election before it was disbanded.
As Kansas secretary of state, Kobach personally defended in federal court a state law requiring residents to show proof of citizenship to register to vote. A judge struck down the law, and also held Kobach in contempt of court and ordered him to take remedial legal education.
By contrast, Adams has gained a reputation in Kentucky for bipartisanship and calling out unproven election conspiracy theories, particularly among those in his own party.
In an interview with the Herald-Leader, Adams said he saw no issue or tension with working for the Kobach campaign.
“What I assist that client with, it’s all public (and) it has nothing to do with anything of that nature – it’s compliance, advice and representation. I think if an election denier slips and falls, he can still get a lawyer who’s gonna represent him despite having opinions that maybe aren’t shared by everybody,” Adams said.
The Kobach campaign’s violation was similar to one that occurred in another campaign that Adams worked for: that of former Missouri governor Eric Greitens.
Adams – who was the campaign attorney for Greitens and was involved in Greitens-aligned dark money group, A New Missouri – was involved in a settlement between the Greitens campaign and the Missouri Ethics Commission over use of a veterans’ nonprofit donor list.
Chalmers & Adams is a litigation and political law firm that mostly performs election-related work for politically conservative clients. Its biggest client logged in an FEC database tracking disbursements in the last three years was Make Liberty Win, a libertarian-leaning PAC affiliated with the organization Young Americans for Liberty. The group paid Chalmers & Adams more than $295,000 in 2022.
Make Liberty Win spent well over $100,000 in Republican state legislative primaries supporting candidates in the unofficial Liberty wing of the GOP, including a crop of winners in Northern Kentucky that upset well-established House committee chairs. In the general election, the group backed Northern Kentucky Republicans Sen. Gex Williams, R-Verona, and Jerry Gearding. Gearding, who lost, was bashed by Democrats during the election for a past accusation of domestic violence.
This year, Adams is facing a primary challenge against Stephen Knipper, a former Republican nominee for the office in 2015 who later fell far short to Adams in 2019, and Allen Maricle. Knipper – who in 2022 finished in last place out of 12 in a bid to keep his Erlanger city council seat – has toured the state with Sen. Adrienne Southworth, R-Lawrenceburg, making unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud across Kentucky.
Adams has frequently pushed back on Knipper and Southworth’s claims.
Former Democratic state representative Buddy Wheatley, who narrowly lost reelection in 2022, is the only member of the opposing party running for Secretary of State. Wheatley’s campaign manager, Elissa Fochtman, said in response to the contents of this story that Adams “should be squarely focused on empowering Kentuckians to vote.”
Kansas City Star political reporter Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report.