A secret recording of a campaign strategy session between U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell and his advisors was taped by leaders of the Progress Kentucky super PAC, says a longtime local Democratic operative.
Mother Jones Magazine released the tape this week. The meeting itself took place on Feb. 2.
Jacob Conway, who is on the executive committee of the Jefferson County Democratic Party, says that day, Shawn Reilly and Curtis Morrison, who founded and volunteered for Progress Kentucky, respectively, bragged to him about how they recorded the meeting.
On the tape, McConnell and his advisors are heard laughing and joking about opposition research they had on actress Ashley Judd, who had been considering running against McConnell next year. Many Democratic groups blasted McConnell for the remarks yesterday, disgusted by the fact McConnell would potentially use Judd’s suicidal thoughts as a child against her.
Reilly and Morrison have declined to comment for this story.
On Feb. 2, McConnell opened his campaign headquarters in the Watterson Office Park in Louisville and invited trusted GOP activists and select media outlets to an open house. The event lasted roughly two hours. Afterward, McConnell and several campaign advisors held a strategy session in an office meeting room.
Morrison and Reilly did not attend the open house, but they told Conway they arrived later and were able to hear the meeting from the hallway.
“They were in the hallway after the, I guess after the celebration and hoopla ended, apparently these people broke for lunch and had a strategy meeting, which is, in every campaign I’ve been affiliated with, makes perfect sense,” says Conway. “One of them held the elevator, the other one did the recording and they left. That was what they told to me from them directly.”
Other sources have corroborated this series of events to WFPL. The meeting room door is next to the elevators on that floor. McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton has told multiple media outlets the door was shut and locked on Feb. 2. But the door has a vent at the bottom and a large gap underneath.
“Apparently the gentlemen overheard the conversation and decided to record it with a phone or recording device they had in their pocket. Could’ve been an iPhone, could’ve been a Flip camera or something like that,” Conway say.
Sources tell WFPL the portion of the meeting that was recorded came at the end of the strategy session.
It’s unclear why Reilly and Morrison held onto the tape for so long. Kentucky law says it is a felony “to overhear, record amplify or transmit any part of a wire or oral communication of others without the consent of at least one party thereto by means of any electric, mechanical or other device.”
But if the conversation was audible from a hallway, it’s disputable whether recording qualifies as eavesdropping.
Before the recording was released, Progress Kentucky ran afoul of the McConnell campaign for another incident. On the PAC’s Twitter account, a volunteer criticized McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, and her ethnicity, saying the Taiwanese-American former Secretary of Labor was complicit in moving jobs to China. Shortly after the tweets became public, Morrison resigned from Progress Kentucky, though he insists another volunteer sent the tweets.
That led many Democratic supporters to distance themselves from Progress Kentucky, and Conway—who, in an interview, called Progress Kentucky a “so-called Super PAC”—says neither the local nor the state Democratic party had any part in the incident.
“The voters I think are smarter that than, Democratic Party loyalists are smarter than that, we know that the party has had nothing to do with this on any level,” he says.
Morrison is a longtime Democratic activist and occasional candidate for office in Louisville, having most recently run for state Senate last year. He has been active in several Democratic groups, including the Metro Democratic Club and he worked for a Credo campaign to defeat Iowa Congressman Steve King.
McConnell’s campaign manager Jesse Benton says the campaign has enlisted the help of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney to track down the source of the recording.
Update: This story originally mentioned a tweet posted by Morrison about Marshall County, which was the site of a previous Senate recording scandal. Morrison has clarified, on Twitter, however, that this post was a reference to another story.
Update 2:40 p.m.: The McConnell campaign has responded to the revelation that the liberal super PAC is behind the leaked audio.
“WFPL’s reports that left-wing activists illegally recorded a private meeting inside our campaign headquarters are very disturbing,” says McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton. “At this point, we understand that the FBI is immersed in an intensive criminal investigation and must defer any further comment to them.”
Update 6 p.m.: An attorney for Reilly, Ted Shouse, told WHAS 11’s Joe Arnold that Reilly is not guilty of any crimes and put the blame for the recording on Morrison.
WFPL intern Rae Hodge contributed to this report.