FRANKFORT — The flap over a secretly recorded discussion of how to attack potential opponents of Sen. Mitch McConnell isn’t the first such taping controversy.
But in 2008, it was McConnell’s campaign which surreptitiously taped his Democratic opponent, entrepreneur Bruce Lunsford.
At a forum in western Kentucky, Lunsford and McConnell stood behind podiums. As the debate concluded, Lunsford removed a legal pad and notes he was using to disclose a tape recorder. Assuming the recorder belonged to his own campaign staff, Lunsford placed it in his pocket and subsequently handed it to his press secretary.
“I handed it to Cary (Stemle) and that’s when he told me it wasn’t ours,” Lunsford said Thursday, recalling the event in 2008.
Richard St. Onge, a staffer for the McConnell campaign at the time, demanded the recording device be returned. At first the Lunsford campaign refused, but then relented.
But then the McConnell campaign claimed the tape had been erased and St. Onge went so far as to swear out a criminal complaint which was later dropped.
Five years later, Lunsford finds it ironic that McConnell has criticized someone for “Nixonian” tactics and McConnell’s campaign manager, Jesse Benton, described the taping originally reported by Mother Jones Magazine as “Gestapo” like.
Earlier this week, Mother Jones Magazine released a tape and transcript of a McConnell campaign strategy meeting which occurred in Louisville on Feb. 2. On the tape, McConnell is heard talking about a “whack-a-mole” period of the campaign and a person identified as “presenter” talks about statements made by Ashley Judd which could be used against her in a possible campaign. Judd was at one time considered a possible opponent for McConnell but has since said she won’t run.
Speculation then shifted to Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes as a possible Democratic challenger. The presenter also discusses Grimes on the tape.
McConnell and his campaign have said their headquarters were “bugged” by a PAC named Progress Kentucky and sought an FBI investigation.
WFPL Public Radio in Louisville Thursday afternoon reported that Jacob Conway, a member of the Jefferson County Democratic executive committee, said two men associated with Progress Kentucky – Shawn Reilly and Curtis Morrison – told him they taped the conversation from outside the room’s door.
Later Thursday, Ted Shouse, an attorney for Reilly, said Reilly began cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s office on the day the tape was released by Mother Jones. He said Reilly was “at most a witness to a potential violation.” The other man, Curtis Morrison, has not come forward or spoken publicly.
However the tape was obtained, Lunsford said it doesn’t show McConnell in a favorable light and McConnell’s reaction is ironic given what happened five years ago.
“I think (the McConnell campaign’s) credibility has suffered major damage,” Lunsford told CNHI News. “You can’t do this stuff for 30 years, and then suddenly cry ‘foul’ when it’s done to you.”
Lunsford compared running against McConnell to “an Ali-Frazier street fight,” referring to the iconic heavyweight champions who staged three classic boxing matches.
“With McConnell, there really are no rules,” Lunsford said.
Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager, said there is no legitimate similarity between the two taping controversies.
“McConnell's 2008 campaign team getting their own audio from a public debate, conducted in front of the media, broadcast on television and in front of a live audience of hundreds, is completely different than a shadowy left-wing activist sneaking into a private office, hiding in a hallway and secretly taping a private conversation under a door,” Benton said. “It's not in the same ballpark. Heck, it's not even in the same zip code.”
Lunsford scoffed, noting the recorder was hidden under other papers on the podium and was clearly against the rules established for the forum.
“When they did it to me in 2008, they did it at an event where the rules were clear and they knew the rules,” Lunsford said.
Lunsford also thinks McConnell’s skillful public relations reaction to the taping has obscured the real issue which ought to be foremost in the public mind.
“The information they were gathering on (Ashley) Judd and Alison (Grimes) is the real issue here,” Lunsford said. “I think they just got caught with their hands in the cookie jar. If they’re not careful, they’re going to get themselves in trouble.”
The transcript of the conversation indicates an unnamed person talked about Grimes’ endorsement of Barack Obama for president and noted that her father, former Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman, businessman and political activist was a member of the Democratic Party Platform committee.
Lunsford said attacking Grimes, who has been mentioned as a potential candidate, through her father would backfire with Kentucky voters.