GILBERTSVILLE — A Republican campaign aide for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell has filed a criminal complaint against Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford and his top consultant alleging that the two stole a digital recorder and intentionally erased it after a debate Thursday in Western Kentucky.
Richard St. Onge III, a staffer working for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, filed the complaint charging Lunsford and Achim Bergmann with petty larceny and destruction of property, according to a statement from the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
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After the final debate between the U.S. Senate candidates, Republicans with McConnell's campaign accused Bergmann of taking and then erasing the GOP staffer's digital recorder.
Bergmann called the charges ridiculous.
Bergmann said it was a mix-up because the recorder was on Lunsford's lectern during the debate and he picked it up with his papers.
"It's a distraction," Bergmann said of the charges. "It shows desperation on their part."
Assistant Marshall County Attorney Jason Darnall confirmed late Thursday that the office had received St. Onge's written complaint and has instructed the sheriff's department to look into the matter. The office has not made a decision on whether it will file formal charges.
"The only evidence we have is what's in the written statement," Darnall said.
David Williams, the state Senate Republican president who is McConnell's statewide campaign chairman, said Lunsford committed theft.
"It is a tremendously bad reflection on Mr. Lunsford's character that he would do that or that he would be in conspiracy with his campaign folks to erase information that the public has a right to hear," Williams said.
Williams said Lunsford staffers took the recorder outside and after Marshall County sheriff's deputies recovered it, they discovered the recorder had been erased.
The recorder belonged to the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Washington and was being used by St. Onge.
St. Onge said that when he asked Lunsford to return the recorder after the debate ended, "He said, 'No you won't get it back.'"
St. Onge said it contained several hours of speeches, including many of McConnell's remarks at recent campaign stops.
Scott Jennings, a consultant with McConnell's campaign, disagreed with Bergmann, saying the recorder was originally placed on the middle lectern used by moderator Bill Bartleman of the Paducah Sun.
Bergmann said Lunsford had handed off his papers with the recorder among them after the debate to an aide and campaign staffers tracked down the recorder as soon as deputies approached them.
"We tried to find the tape recorder so we could give it back," Bergmann said. He said he didn't know the recorder was erased and "would never" tell anyone to erase it.
Bergmann said he never actually touched the digital recorder so it was absurd to file a complaint against him. Later, after the complaint was filed, Bergmann said he learned that the staff had erased the debate but said it was done because it was against debate rules to have campaign material on the podium. Bergmann said the staff felt that the Republicans were intentionally trying to record any off-mic comments Lunsford might have made.