Politics & Government

McConnell aide says FBI has 'several leads' about secret campaign recording

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. Herald-Leader

FRANKFORT — FBI agents were at the Louisville office of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell for about an hour Wednesday as they investigated a secret recording of McConnell and his aides discussing in February how to attack actress Ashley Judd.

"It appears they have several leads and that we will hear from them in the not too distant future," said Jesse Benton, McConnell's campaign manager, in a telephone interview. "I hope everything comes out in a trial."

Benton said staffers handed over pertinent information to the FBI, which asked the campaign not to discuss details of the probe.

Benton told Sean Hannity's national radio show that the campaign "brought a couple people to the attention" of the FBI, but he did not identify anyone. He also said he does not think anyone from McConnell's "team" did anything wrong.

In public statements Tuesday, McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, accused "the left" of using "Nixonian" tactics to bug his campaign headquarters in Louisville.

"Last month my wife's ethnicity was attacked by a left-wing group in Kentucky, and then apparently they also bugged my headquarters," McConnell said, referring to the Super PAC Progress Kentucky. "So I think that pretty well sums up the way the political left is operating in Kentucky."

In an update on its website, Mother Jones said the McConnell campaign's claim is not correct. The magazine said it "is our understanding that the tape was not the product of a Watergate-style bugging operation. We cannot comment beyond that."

Kentucky is one of 39 states, along with the District of Columbia, that permits individuals to record conversations to which they are a party without informing the other parties that they are doing so.

The FBI has acknowledged that the McConnell campaign asked it to investigate but has not elaborated.

Meanwhile, Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Daniel Logsdon urged the McConnell campaign Wednesday to make public results of any FBI investigation "in light of Sen. McConnell's various conspiracy theories."

In response, Benton said any release of results from the investigation "would be left up to the FBI."

Logsdon also said proper authorities should investigate whether McConnell used "taxpayer-funded legislative aides" to conduct opposition research on his political opponents.

The liberal-leaning publication Mother Jones released the nearly 12-minute audio recording Tuesday, saying it was obtained last week from a source who requested anonymity.

The magazine, in its story about the recording, raised the question of whether McConnell's aides were misused. It is against federal law and U.S. Senate rules for federal employees to work in campaigns on government time and in government property. However, they can work on a campaign during their off-hours or outside federal offices.

McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer said in an email Wednesday that the recording captures a speaker noting that members of McConnell's staff were volunteering "in their free time."

But a transcript of the tape produced by Mother Jones instead says "thank them three times."

"The transcript of the recording currently being examined by the FBI contains an inaccuracy that partisans used yesterday in an attempt to smear the staff of Sen. McConnell," Steurer said.

The Herald-Leader was unable to determine from the recording exactly what the speaker said.

"Although this error may not have been intentional, it is really sad there are partisan operatives willing to ignore the potential of a crime and focus their attacks on the common practice of young people volunteering for a cause they believe in," Steurer said.

In the campaign strategy meeting, McConnell and his campaign aides discussed Judd's mental health and religious beliefs as possible points of political attack. Judd, an actress, decided last month not to run against McConnell.

The meeting also involved criticism of Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat who has been mentioned as a possible candidate against McConnell.

Dale Emmons, a Democratic consultant and a close friend of Grimes, agreed with Logsdon's call that McConnell should make public "any and all results" of the FBI investigation.

"I fully support a vetting of this issue since he brought it up," Emmons said. "What he is probably trying to do is to distract what was actually said on these recordings."

He said McConnell should make public who was present at the strategy session and all that was said at the meeting.

Strategy sessions are common in campaigns, "but McConnell's tore down two women on a personal level, nothing to do with them professionally," Emmons said.

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