The endlessly complicated aftermath of Mississippi's Republican Senate primary added a new layer of complexity late Tuesday, with reports that the man who had accused the campaign of Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) of buying votes is now accusing a spokesman for Chris McDaniel, Cochran's opponent, of paying him to lie about the whole thing.
Last month, Stevie Fielder told conservative blogger Charles Johnson in a recorded interview -- for which he was paid -- that he had been given cash to buy votes for Cochran in the runoff election. In short order, Fielder recanted that claim, which was frankly not really plausible based on the evidence at hand.
The attorney general for the state of Mississippi, Jim Hood (D), confirmed to the Jackson Clarion Ledger last week that he was investigating the source of the money that Fielder received for his interview. (Both Johnson and Fielder have admitted the payment.) "[Fielder] admitted he got paid $2,000 to lie," Hood told the paper. "We hadn't seen the source of the funds yet. I don't know if that blogger had it."
It now appears that Fielder has implicated Noel Fritsch, McDaniel's campaign spokesman. Hood aide Jan Schaefer confirmed to the paper that Fielder told investigators that Fritsch was the source of the money. Fritsch released a statement in response to the report, stating that "Charles Johnson paid for the texts & emails Cochran/Wicker staffer Saleem Baird sent that prove Cochran bought Democrat votes." Responding to a question from the Post, Fritsch indicated that he had not been contacted by the attorney general's office, and added that he "wonder(s) whether Attorney General Hood will subpoena the email record and text messages the Cochran campaign's Saleem Baird sent to Rev. Fielder about buying votes."
The Post asked Fritsch specifically about the allegation that he paid Fielder to lie. Referring to Johnson's insistence that it was he, not Fritsch, who paid Fielder, Fritsch responded: "Given that Charles Johnson of GotNews.com, and not I, paid for the texts and emails Cochran staffers sent to Rev. Fielder that strongly suggest the Cochran campaign paid $15 for votes, we call on Attorney General Hood to subpoena the emails and text messages the Cochran campaign sent to Rev. Fielder about buying votes."
Fielder, of course, has already changed his story on his involvement in the affair at least once. It seems clear that he knew who Fritsch was, though. In the original interview with Johnson, audio of which is available at YouTube, it appears that Fritsch is mentioned in passing (though his name is mispronounced) at about the 16:15 mark. Fielder and Johnson are discussing Baird, the Cochran staffer that Fielder accused of paying him money; the interviewer is likely a past collaborator of Johnson's named Joel Gilbert, according to the Clarion-Ledger.
Johnson: Do you have a photo of Saleem, by any chance, Reverend, with some people?
Fielder: Um, I can get one.
Interviewer: OK. If you can forward that or email that to us or to No-elle, we'd like to get that.
Fielder: OK. I can definitely get one.
When the story first became public, the Post asked Fritsch if he or the McDaniel campaign had any contact with Fielder before Johnson's interview. We received no response.
The timing is particularly tricky for McDaniel's campaign. On Monday, it filed its official complaint about the election results with the Republican Party of Mississippi. In a section detailing alleged illegal behavior on the part of Cochran's campaign, Fielder's story still features prominently.
The complaint -- and McDaniel's faint hopes of heading to Washington -- hinge on the party tossing out the election results because of the involvement of Democratic voters in the party runoff. The campaign has called for a public hearing by the state party on the evidence it has presented, likely in part in the hopes that it can leverage the energy of its supporters to put pressure on the party's executive committee.
The McDaniel campaign has repeatedly suggested that it is fighting a moral battle in raising questions about Mississippi's election process. An allegation of unethical behavior on its part -- unproven and from a source who has changed his story, we re-emphasize -- could significantly undermine that case.
This post has been updated with Fritsch's statement.