FRANKFORT, Ky. - A liberal political fundraising group in Kentucky is being tied to a secret recording of a campaign meeting held by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in which his aides disparaged actress Ashley Judd.
The leader of Progress Kentucky and a volunteer were outside of the February campaign meeting and "never left a public hallway," said attorney Ted Shouse, who is representing the group's executive director, Shawn Reilly. The attorney said Reilly met with the FBI and is cooperating with the bureau's investigation. The volunteer was Curtis Morrison.
"One, we're innocent. Two, we're at most a witness to Mr. Morrison's criminal activity," Shouse said. "There was clearly a recording. I can tell you that Mr. Reilly never entered Mr. McConnell's office."
Shouse did not explicitly say that Morrison made the recording. Morrison has not been charged with any wrongdoing. He has not returned phone calls or email and no one answered the door at his home Friday.
The recording was leaked to the liberal magazine Mother Jones and published earlier this week. Mother Jones said the recording came from a confidential source. It posted audio and a transcript of the meeting online.
On the recording, the Senate Minority Leader and his aides talked about opposition research into potential Democratic challengers, including Judd. Aides discussed Judd's past bouts with depression and how the campaign might use that against her if she decided to challenge him in the 2014 election. The aides laughed about Judd's depression, as well as her political positions and religious beliefs.
Judd, a former Kentucky resident now living in Tennessee, announced last month that she wouldn't seek the Democratic nomination. Political observers are waiting to hear if Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, plans to get into the race.
In the recording, McConnell began the meeting by telling aides the campaign had entered "the Whac-A-Mole period" and explained that means "when anybody sticks their head up, do them out." That is the only time McConnell was heard speaking.
His campaign asked the FBI to investigate how the recording was made. Campaign manager Jesse Benton charged that liberals had bugged the office where the strategy session was held, likening it to the 1972 Watergate break-in of Democratic offices by President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign.
Under federal law, it is illegal to use an electronic device to secretly record someone without their knowledge if the recorder is not also a party to the conversation. Kentucky has a similar state law.
Generally, well-known public figures have an expectation of privacy when they speak in their homes or other private retreats. The law prohibits bugging a room, secretly monitoring telephone conversations or intercepting computer communications. However, the publishers, in this case Mother Jones, may disseminate illegally taped conversations if they didn't break any law in getting the recording.
McConnell opened his campaign headquarters on Feb. 2 on the second floor of the 10-story Watterson Towers, on the west side of Louisville. About 75 people attended.
To get to McConnell's office, visitors must pass by a security guard to get to the elevator. The main entrance into McConnell's suite has a half-inch gap between the bottom of the door and the floor.
McConnell opened the headquarters nearly a year earlier than any of his previous campaigns, promising the "biggest and best campaign this state has ever seen."
"They want to take me out," McConnell said then. "This is the only race in the country with any national significance. And that's why we're up and running this far in advance."
Progress Kentucky is a Louisville-based Political Action Committee with the singular goal of ousting McConnell, according to its website.
Progress Kentucky raised about $1,000 and spent $18 for the short time it existed in 2012, according to its year-end filing with the Federal Elections Commission. Most of the money it raised came through ActBlue, a fundraising website for Democratic candidates.
The group's treasurer, Douglas L. Davis, resigned Tuesday, the same day the recording was published. Davis' attorney, Brian Butler, said Davis was in Orlando, Fla., on the day of McConnell's meeting.
"He had no knowledge that Sen. McConnell's office was going to be secretly recorded," Butler said.