A liberal watchdog group has filed FBI and ethics complaints against Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell based on what appears to be an inaccurate transcript of a secret audio tape published by Mother Jones. The correct (or, at the very least, far more plausible) transcription of the recording seriously undermines the complaints.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) is asking the FBI, as well as the Senate ethics committee, to investigate whether McConnell violated federal law and Senate ethics rules by using congressional staff to formally conduct opposition research for his reelection campaign.
The complaints come days after Mother Jones, a liberal magazine, published a secret recording of a February meeting between McConnell and top aides in which they are heard discussing ways to attack potential Democratic challenger Ashley Judd based on research conducted by staff members. In a subsequent post, Mother Jones suggested that McConnell may have violated Senate ethics rules.
In both of its complaints, CREW cites a portion of the transcribed recording provided by Mother Jones:
Presenter: So I’ll just preface my comments that this reflects the work of a lot of folks: Josh, Jesse, Phil Maxson, a lot of LAs, thank them three times, so this is a compilation of work, all the way through. The first person we’ll focus on, Ashley Judd—basically I refer to her as sort of the oppo research situation where there’s a haystack of needles, just because truly, there’s such a wealth of material.
CREW, as well as Mother Jones, correctly notes that “LAs” is congressional slang for legislative assistants in Capitol Hill offices, and points out that Maxson is a McConnell LA. Under Senate ethics rules, such staffers are prohibiting from taking part in campaign activity in an official capacity. Such activity could also be considered theft of government property (i.e., the labor of taxpayer-funded), a federal crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
But the transcript, as cited, appears to contain a pretty important error. A close listening of this section of the tape (which can be found here, beginning at 00:26) makes fairly clear that the presenter is saying that the staffers’ work occurred “in free time,” rather than making the recommendation “thank them three times.” Or more precisely, it appears he says, “uh . . . in free time.” At the very least, common sense suggests that’s more likely what he said, since the alternate transcript sounds bizarre.
Mother Jones updated their post on Wednesday to indicate that this is indeed a “plausible” explanation, adding: “if it’s true, McConnell and his aides are in the clear.” Research conducted in free time would not be considered a violation of ethics rules. CREW makes no mention of this in its complaints. A spokesman for CREW did not immediately return a request for comment (see update below).
The McConnell campaign says the tape was obtained through an illicit “bugging” operation, and the FBI is currently investigating that charge. When the recording was first published, liberals sought to make a scandal of the fact that McConnell’s team had discussed Judd’s religious views and mental-health history, but that didn’t pan out as they’d hoped. Veteran Washington Post political reporter Chris Cillizza wrote of the tape, “This is much ado about not much . . . [it's] the basic blocking and tackling of opposition research that every candidate does both against their potential opponents and against themselves.”
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), however, ran with the story, and echoed the charges of a possible ethics violation. They issued a press release stating the following: “According to an audio tape of a meeting between Senator Mitch McConnell and his official and campaign staff, Senator McConnell is using taxpayer-funded legislative aides to do opposition research for his reelection campaign.” DSCC executive director Guy Cecil wrote on Twitter: “How many McConnell Senate staffers participated in gathering opposition research on Democrats? Was this part of their day-to-work?” His deputy Matt Cantor tweeted a link to the story.
McConnell campaign spokesman Robert Steurer slammed “partisan operatives” for running a smear campaign based on a faulty transcript. “The transcript of the recording currently being examined by the FBI contains an inaccuracy that partisans used in an attempt to smear the staff of Senator McConnell,” he told National Review Online in a statement. “Although this error may not have been intentional, it is really sad that there are partisan operatives willing to ignore the potential of a crime and focus their attacks on the common practice of young people volunteering for a cause they believe in.”
UPDATE: CREW executive director Melanie Sloan tells National Review Online her organization listened to the tape “quite closely,” and concedes that the relevant quote is “not conclusive,” but adds: “I don’t actually think it matters.” Sloan argues that the “core question” — which cannot be answered by the tape alone – remains whether or not Senate staffers were paid to conduct campaign research, which is precisely why CREW has asked the FBI and Senate ethics committee to investigate.