Along with the mystery surrounding who secretly recorded Mitch McConnell and his staff discussing campaign strategy at his campaign headquarters is another issue the tapes raise: the possibility that the Kentucky senator’s legislative staff was helping dig up dirt on Ashley Judd and other potential opponents.
Democrats are seizing on it, but it’s still unclear whether McConnell’s staff did anything wrong.
In the recording, obtained by Mother Jones magazine, the aide doing the presentation thanks a group of people:
“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,” the aide says to laughter from the group. “Ah, you know Jesse slogged through her autobiography. She has innumerable video interviews, tweets, blog posts, articles, magazine articles.”
“Jesse” may refer to Jesse Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager, but the word “LA” probably refers to Legislative Aides or Legislative Assistants, people who work in his senate office.
Two other possible Senate staffers are Phillip Maxson, who is listed on the National Journal Almanac as Legislative Assistant, Projects Director, and “Josh,” which may refer to Josh Holmes, McConnell’s Senate chief of staff. It’s common and legal for senate staffers to work on a campaign, but only if they take vacation time when they are working on the campaign and are volunteering.
In a statement this afternoon, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee criticized “McConnell’s use of taxpayer-funded legislative aides to do opposition research for his reelection campaign.”
“Mitch McConnell is desperate to play the victim,” DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil said in a statement. “The DSCC doesn’t know if this tape came from a disgruntled Senate staffer who was forced to dig up dirt on their boss’ potential opponents or another source, but its content is a clear example of how Mitch McConnell is the living, breathing embodiment of everything that is wrong with Washington. It is beneath the office of Minority Leader to engage in this kind of trivial politics.”
The ethics rules read explicitly that, “Senate employees are free to engage in campaign activity, as volunteers or for pay, provided they do so on their own time, outside of Senate space, and without using Senate resources.”
“Because Senate pay should be commensurate with Senate duties performed, when an employee intends to spend additional time on campaign activities beyond regular working hours and any accrued annual leave, a Senator should either reduce the salary of or remove the employee from the Senate payroll, as appropriate,” the rules read.
Larry Noble, the head of Americans for Campaign Reform, said the work can just not be done “on Senate time.”
“If they are referring to Senate staff working on this, the question is: Were they working on opposition research for the campaign while they were on the Senate payroll, while they were being paid by the Senate?” Noble said.
The meeting took place on Feb. 2, which was a Saturday, giving credence to the argument these staffers were volunteering their time, but as Noble points out it “doesn’t mean the research was done on the weekend.”
Noble said they also can’t use any “any of the resources of the Senate office,” adding, “There is no indication they were.”
Benton, McConnell’s campaign manager, would not comment only saying: “We’re not commenting on the substance of illegally obtained recordings.”
McConnell’s Senate staff would not comment, instead directing all questions to the campaign.