TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY
By Ronnie Ellis/CNHI News Service
The story of the surreptitious taping of a Mitch McConnell campaign strategy meeting got even more complicated Thursday when an attorney said his client was “witness to a potential violation” and is cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Ted Shouse said he represents Shawn O’Reilly, who is associated with the Kentucky Progress PAC which McConnell and his campaign have alleged secretly made the recording of the Feb. 2 private meeting.
He said Reilly had committed no violation but had witnessed the events as reported earlier by WFPL Public Radio in Louisville. Earlier Thursday, the NPR affiliate reported that Jacob Conway, a member of the Jefferson County Democratic Party Executive Committee, told the station that Reilly and Curtis Morrison had “bragged” to him they had made the recording through a vent in a doorway to the meeting room.
The tape was released earlier this week, along with a transcript by Mother Jones Magazine, the same news source that reported on the now infamous “47-percent” comments by Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney last fall.
On the tape, McConnell is heard to say is the “whack-a-mole” portion of the campaign where, like the game of that name, the campaign will hit any potential opponent who pops up. During the meeting, a person identified on the transcript only as “presenter” talks about Ashley Judd’s public comments about her previous treatment for depression, Christianity and other controversial comments.
Since the Feb. 2 meeting, Judd, who was considering a race against McConnell, has said she will not run. Speculation then turned to Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
The presenter goes on to say on the tape that the campaign is conducting research on Grimes and mentions her father, Jerry Lundergan, a political activist, former Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman, and businessman.
McConnell and his campaign manager, Jesse Benton, said their offices had been “bugged” by the “left wing,” and McConnell mentioned the Progress Kentucky PAC which had previously published a comment on Twitter implying McConnell’s positions on trade with China might be influenced by his wife, Elaine Chao, who was born in Taiwan.
Thursday, Shouse said Reilly had done nothing wrong and went immediately to talk with the U.S. District Attorney when the Mother Jones story appeared.
But he said Reilly had “witnessed a potential violation,” seeming to imply he was present and that someone else, presumably Morrison, had done the actual taping.
Morrison had not spoken publicly about the event as of press time Thursday.
Kentucky law permits the taping of a conversation so long as one party to the conversation is aware of the taping. That would probably have protected anyone inside the room who had taped the meeting.
But if the person or persons taping the conversation were outside the room and not party to the conversations, that might place those persons at legal risk.
McConnell, known for an aggressive, no-holds barred campaign style, was initially criticized for the discussions of Judd’s previous bouts with depression and other controversial statements which could be used against her.
But he quickly shifted the focus to how the conversation was recorded. McConnell answered questions about the substance of the recorded conversations by saying the “left wing” had attacked his wife’s ethnicity and now apparently had “bugged my headquarters.” He said attacks on Chao were out of bounds.
WFPL reported Thursday that Conway, who is no relation to Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway and is a member of the Jefferson County Democratic Party Executive Committee, said Reilly and Morrison told him they’d taped the conversation.
Conway said he wanted to protect the party from being unfairly associated with the two men and the activity which might be illegal.
Benton seized upon the WFPL report.
“WFPL’s reports that the left-wing activists illegally recorded a private meeting inside our campaign headquarters are very disturbing,” Benton said. “At this point, we understand that the FBI is immersed in an intensive criminal investigation and must defer any further comment to them.”
Earlier Thursday, CNHI asked Benton about the substance of the recorded conversations.
Benton said those conversations are not unlike those of any campaign when researches information about opponents.
American Crossroads, a Republican Super PAC established by Karl Rove, ran a web ad ridiculing some statements about Judd before she announced she would not run. Some of the statements were similar to things discussed on the Mother Jones tape.
But Benton said McConnell’s campaign had done nothing out of bounds in its treatment of Judd’s potential candidacy.
“We went out of our way to be publicly respectful to Ashley Judd when she was deciding whether to run,” Benton said. All of the comments in the Crossroads ad were based on Judd’s public or written statements, he added.
But Benton said the campaign will continue to research the background of all potential opponents.
On the tape, the presenter mentions Grimes’ father, Jerry Lundergan, a sometimes controversial political figure who years ago was charged with a violation while serving in the General Assembly. He was initially convicted but the verdict was overturned because the charge was improperly styled as a felony rather than a misdemeanor.
Lundergan declined to comment Thursday about the possibility he might be a target of the McConnell campaign.
CNHI asked Benton why attacking Lundergan would be any different than the comments about Chao’s background.
Benton said the comment on Twitter criticized Chao’s ethnicity, which should be off limits. But Benton said Chao, a former U.S. Labor Secretary, is a “public figure with a public record and that is fair game.
“Lundergan is a public figure and has been very involved in public affairs,” Benton said. “That public record is fair game.”
Dale Emmons, a Democratic political consultant and family friend of Grimes and Lundergan, said he wasn’t surprised by Benton’s comment.
“No one should be surprised by anything Mitch does to his potential opponents,” Emmons said. But he said Grimes has no long public record to mine for political ads.
“He takes a risk if he attacks her father,” Emmons said. “All of us who have daughters or mothers are going to say that’s over the line.”
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.