Politics & Government

Progress Kentucky founders bragged about recording McConnell meeting, Democrat says

A leader of the Democratic Party in Louisville said Thursday that two people affiliated with the Progress Kentucky Super PAC bragged to him that they had secretly recorded a strategy session of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell's campaign.

Jacob Conway, a member of the Jefferson County Democratic Party's executive committee, said Shawn Reilly and Curtis Morrison, co-founders of the independent political action committee, told him they had recorded the meeting while at the grand opening of McConnell's campaign headquarters in Louisville.

The FBI is investigating the secret recording at McConnell's request after the left-leaning publication Mother Jones released the audio this week. Mother Jones has said it got the recording from a source who requested anonymity.

On the recording, McConnell and his aides discussed ways to attack potential challengers to his re-election next year, including the mental health struggles of actress Ashley Judd. Judd has decided not to enter the race.

Conway, who described himself as friends with Reilly and Morrison, said they told him the recording was made while standing outside the closed-door meeting.

"They said they were in the hallway and taped the meeting," he said.

Conway said he was "having drinks with one of them, I can't remember which one ..." when he first learned of the recording. "I talked to the other one about it later by phone."

McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton said this week that the door to the meeting room was shut, but it has a vent at the bottom and a large gap underneath. He said the meeting was private.

The attorney for Reilly, Ted Shouse, said Thursday that his client has done nothing illegal and "at most, he was a witness to a potential crime." Shouse said Reilly was with Morrison at McConnell's headquarters on Feb. 2, but Shouse would not say what Reilly saw.

The attorney also said Reilly has provided "material support and information" to the FBI in the last three days.

Calls and emails to Morrison for comment were not returned.

Conway said he has not talked to anyone from the FBI or any other law enforcement agency about his comments.

"I never shared the information and thought it was over until the story broke," he said.

Conway's comments about the recording were first reported Thursday by WFPL, a National Public Radio station in Louisville. Conway, who is not related to state Attorney General Jack Conway, said a reporter from the radio station called him Thursday morning.

"I was asked to corroborate what the reporter said he had heard from some other local Democrats and that's all I thought I was doing," Conway said. "Now I'm being flooded by media calls."

Conway, a vice president of sales and marketing for Website Mentors, said he never has been a member of Progress Kentucky but did give the PAC "$20.14 or something like that." He also said no one has offered him money or anything of value to make his comments.

In a statement, Benton called Conway's comments "very disturbing."

"WFPL's reports that left-wing activists illegally recorded a private meeting inside our campaign headquarters are very disturbing," he said. "At this point, we understand that the FBI is immersed in an intensive criminal investigation and must defer any further comment to them."

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

He also this week again criticized Progress Kentucky for attacking the ethnicity of his wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, in a tweet this year and said Progress Kentucky "apparently bugged my headquarters."

Progress Kentucky was formed in December to oppose McConnell's re-election next year.

University of Kentucky law professor Josh Douglas said Kentucky law allows individuals to record conversations to which they are a party without informing the other parties that they are doing so.

"I don't know all the specifics in this case, but a person in a meeting who is part of the conversation and secretly records it has not broken the law in Kentucky," Douglas said.

The issue gets more complex if someone who is not part of the conversation tapes others in a conversation without their knowledge, he said. That could constitute eavesdropping, which is a Class D felony subject to a penalty of up to five years in prison, he said.

Republican Party Chairman Steve Robertson said in a statement that the McConnell campaign strategy meeting "was recorded without consent of the attendees, and pending the FBI investigation, could result in felony charges."

Robertson said leading Democrats "now need to step forward and state for the record that they did not have knowledge of these recordings and condemn these desperate tactics of the left."

A legal watchdog group asked the FBI and a U.S. Senate committee Thursday to investigate whether Sen. Mitch McConnell misused Senate staff or resources to conduct opposition research on potential campaign opponents.

The group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said it based its complaints to the FBI and the Senate Select Committee on Ethics on this week's report by Mother Jones.

CREW executive director Melanie Sloan, a former U.S. prosecutor who used to work for several Democratic members of Congress, said an unnamed presenter in the recording thanked those who conducted the research on Judd and others, including "LAs," a reference to legislative assistant or legislative aide.

She said the presenter mentions Phil Maxson, who has been a legislative aide in McConnell's office since early 2011, and "appears to refer" to the senator's chief of staff, Josh Holmes.

"Using taxpayer-funded resources to pay staffers to dig up dirt on political opponents isn't just an ethics violation, it's a federal crime," Sloan said in a statement. "As Sen. McConnell requested, the FBI is investigating the recording. A thorough and fair investigation necessitates the bureau also inquire into whether Sen. McConnell himself violated the law."

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 and outside federal offices.

McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer said Wednesday that the recording captures a speaker saying that McConnell's staff was volunteering "in their free time." But the Mother Jones written transcript of that portion of the tape instead says "thank them three times."

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

jack Brammerjbrammer@herald-leader.com

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