Members of a Democratic super PAC, Progress Kentucky, made the secret recording of a strategy meeting between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his top advisers, according to a local Democratic Party official.
The secret recording — in which McConnell and his staff were caught discussing how to handle a potential campaign against actress Ashley Judd — sparked an enormous backlash from the right, prompting endless comparisons to Watergate and accusations of "Gestapo" tactics from a McConnell campaign manager.
Jefferson County Democratic official Jacob Conway told local news outlets on Thursday that two members of Progress Kentucky had bragged to him about making the tape. According to Conway, the two said they were "just hanging around" McConnell's new campaign office when they heard the conversation and decided to record it.
From local public radio station WFPL:
"'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.'" [WFPL]
The station added that other unnamed sources had since corroborated the story.
In a subsequent interview with NBC on Thursday, Conway said he came forward to dissociate the state party from the unaffiliated super PAC. He added that he did not think they had any "sinister motives," but that they were "inexperienced, and got excited."
At the same time, Progress Kentucky's former treasurer, who resigned right when the tape was published, is staying mum about why he left.
"At this time based on advice of both friends and counsel, I will be not be making a public statement available until everything has been reviewed by an attorney at this time," the treasurer, Douglas L. Davis, told NBC News. "I have resigned my position as treasurer and did not and do not condone any allegations of illegal activity that might have taken place."
The audio recording reveals McConnell and his staff discussing whether to use Judd's past history of mental illness against her. Mother Jones published the audio earlier this week, leading McConnell to denounce "Nixonian" tactics and call for an FBI investigation to find out who'd made the recording.
The two Progress Kentucky members linked to the recording are Shawn Reilly and Curtis Morrison, the group's founders. As of Thursday evening, neither had responded to multiple reporters' requests for comment. Mother Jones' David Corn, who first published the tape earlier this week, has so far also declined to comment.
"It's a confidential source, until the source comes forward, we don't comment," he told Politico.
Launched last December, Progress Kentucky has one single mission: Unseat McConnell. Prior to the taping dustup, the group had already caught flak for a tweet attacking the senator's wife, former labor secretary Elaine Chao, an incident which the McConnell campaign spun into its first ad of the 2014 elections. When news of the tape broke, the senator seemed initially to claim that Progress Kentucky had bugged his office, though he later backtracked, saying he'd only accused "the left in general."
Some have questioned whether the recording constitutes a federal crime.
Again, from WFPL:
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." [WFPL]
According to Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, who spoke with the Washington Post, criminal charges would depend on whether there was "a reasonable expectation of privacy during the taping and whether physical trespassing was involved." He added that as long as Mother Jones had no hand in making the recording, the liberal news outfit should be safe.
But Republican National Committee spokesman Sean Spicer questioned on Twitter whether Mother Jones could still face legal action for publishing the tape's contents, pointing to a misdemeanor statute prohibiting the publication of illegally obtained information. The Weekly Standards' Daniel Halper posed a similar argument, saying that if Mother Jones or Corn knew the tape had been made illegally, "then Corn's publishing of that illegally obtained information might also be a violation of the law."
The FBI has launched an investigation into the incident, sweeping McConnell's office, pulling surveillance video and, now that he's come forward, contacting Conway for more information.