Authorities have charged four men with conspiracy in relation to the photos of Sen. Thad Cochran’s (R-Miss.) wife allegedly taken by an apparent supporter of his primary challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel.
According to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, attorney Mark Mayfield, a vice chairman of the Mississippi Tea Party, Richard Sager, a soccer coach and P.E. teacher at Mason Elementary School in Laurel, Miss., John Mary and Clayton Kelly, who has been in custody since Friday for allegedly taking the photos, were all charged with conspiracy on Thursday.
Mayfield and Sager were taken into in custody and are being held on $250,000 bond. Sager was also charged with tampering with evidence.
Kelly, a local activist and apparent McDaniel supporter, was arrested Friday on a charge of exploitation of a vulnerable adult. He allegedly took photographs of Cochran’s infirm wife in her nursing home room and used them in a political hit video he posted on his blog.
The story has become a flashpoint in the already-nasty primary fight between McDaniel and Cochran, who’s seen as the most vulnerable incumbent facing a primary challenge this cycle.
Though McDaniel has repeatedly asserted his ignorance of the stunt and declared his campaign wasn't behind it. Mayfield’s arrest complicates that, as he and his wife were listed as hosts of an April fundraiser for the candidate that occured after the film was allegedly taken, and he was apparently close with McDaniel staff members.
However, Michael Guest, the district attorney for Madison and Rankin counties, said he doesn't believe anyone with the McDaniel campaign is involved.
McDaniel said in a statement that Guest's assertion "confirms what we've said all along," and accused Cochran of "slander and lies."
"Cochran's privacy is an outrage and completely out of bounds. As the District Attorney has said, our campaign had nothing to do with this sad incident. This campaign should be about a real debate over issues, and we look forward to a return to that discussion," he said.
"I call on Sen. Cochran to remove his incendiary ad tying myself and my campaign to any illegal activity. It is shameful for a sitting U.S. Senator to engage in such desperate slander and lies."
"As we have said since day one, the violation of the privacy of Mrs. Cochran is out of bounds for politics and is reprehensible. Any individuals who were involved in this crime should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," McDaniel said.
Both sides have accused the other of using the situation for political gain. Cochran’s campaign has raised questions about who on the McDaniel campaign knew about the video and when, and McDaniel’s campaign has asked why the Cochran campaign held onto the information for weeks before turning it over to authorities.
Though a poll out this week from a pro-McDaniel group showed a margin-of-error race, Mississippi political observers agree McDaniel’s fumbling of the issue — the already-murky timeline of events has shifted in nearly every interview he’s given — could cost him the race.
But neither side is taking the situation for granted in the last stretch before the June 3 primary, launching a barrage of attack ads this week.
Two pro-McDaniel groups started airing ads on Wednesday hammering Cochran for his long tenure in Washington, insufficient opposition to ObamaCare and, in one, for voting "to make amnesty for illegal immigrants possible". And on Thursday, a pro-Cochran group, Mississippi Conservatives PAC, launched an ad calling McDaniel a "trial lawyer" and declaring he "says one thing, [but] his record says something else," pointing to his 2003 vote in a Democratic primary, among other issues.
Cochran introduced his own ad as well, a positive spot featuring a Mississippi resident suffering from a brain tumor praising Cochran and his staff for helping him cut through "a good bit of red tape" to get treatment.
This post was updated at 5:30 p.m.