Progress Kentucky activists behind McConnell tape, Democrat alleges

Members of the Democratic group Progress Kentucky were behind a leaked recording of a private conversation among Sen. Mitch McConnell and his campaign staff about potential rivals, a local Democrat alleges.

The tape was not made by bugging the Republican senator's office but by standing in the hallway while the conversation occurred, Jacob Conway, a member of the executive committee of the Louisville/Jefferson County Democratic Party, told news organizations.

Conway told Louisville NPR affiliate WFPL that Shawn Reilly, Progress Kentucky's executive director, and Curtis Morrison, a former spokesman for the group, had boasted to him about making the tape.

According to Conway's account, the recording was made in early February, when McConnell held an open house, with media included, to unveil his reelection campaign headquarters in Louisville. Reilly and Morrison were not at the open house, Conway said, but they arrived afterward and heard and taped the private conversation from the hall. The recording was published by Mother Jones, a liberal magazine.

An attorney for Reilly told the Post that his client was present at the time but did not commit any crime.

"Our client is at most a witness to potential criminal activity," attorney Ted Shouse said. Reilly, he said, spoke with the U.S. Attorney's office for the Eastern District of Kentucky the day the Mother Jones story broke. "We have cooperated with the FBI since the tape was released to the public on Mother Jones, we have provided information and support that we believe is assisting them in their investigation." Reilly, he said, did not hold the elevator or in any way participate in any recording. "It was a Morrison show," Shouse added.

As of Thursday afternoon, Morrison had not responded to a Washington Post request for comment on Conway's allegations or Reilly's statement. (Update: Morrison has said he is not commenting. On Friday, Conway told the Courier-Journal that he may have only talked to Morrison, not Reilly, although he stands by what he says is Morrison's account of the taping.)

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

McConnell's staff had asked the FBI to investigate the recording earlier in the week.

Conway later told Fox News that he revealed the activists' actions for the good of the Democratic party.

"The only reason that I came forward with what I knew was, I was trying to protect the Democratic Party," he said. "I believe in our party's values, and I was doing what I thought was best for the party because I did not want their bad behavior, their poor mistakes — I shouldn't say bad behavior — their mistakes, their lack of judgment to hurt our party's efforts here in the state Kentucky and in Jefferson County, here in Louisville."

Conway told Fox News that he didn't know how the pair got into McConnell's office after the grand opening. At the time his friends told him about the recording, he "didn't think anything of it," but once the story broke, he became concerned that the state and local party would be falsely accused of involvement.

He said he has not heard from either man since speaking to WFPL and has not been contacted by the FBI.

McConnell and his staff have accused liberals of bugging the Senate minority leader's office because the conversation occurred among a small group of loyal staffers with the door closed. The FBI has visited the campaign offices to investigate.

The creators of the recording could face criminal charges. Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, said it depends in part on whether there was a reasonable expectation of privacy during the taping and whether physical trespassing was involved. What is clear is that if Mother Jones was not involved in acquiring the tape, the First Amendment protects the magazine from prosecution.

On the tape, McConnell and his staff discuss lines of attack to use against potential opponent actress Ashley Judd, who has since announced that she will not run for Senate, as well as likely Senate challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, Kentucky's secretary of state.

Progress Kentucky came under fire earlier this year for a tweet about Mitch McConnell's Chinese-American wife. After the tape went public, McConnell tied the tape to the offensive tweet, saying both showed how low "the political left" would go in attacking him. The group, which had attracted little notice until the tweet, had raised only about $1,000 as of December.

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Aaron Blake | April 11, 2013