Kentucky activist denies wrongdoing in McConnell bugging controversy

Progress Kentucky Executive Director Shawn Reilly is denying he engaged in any illegal activity with respect to the alleged recording of a private campaign strategy meeting between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and aides, his attorney said Thursday. 

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Reilly is also working with federal investigators to locate his associate, Curtis Morrison, the lawyer said.

"Shawn Reilly has cooperated fully with the U.S. Attorney's office and the FBI, from the date the recording was released by Mother Jones," attorney Annie O'Connell told The Hill. 

O'Connell added: "Our position, our statement, is that Mr. Reilly is innocent of any criminal wrongdoing. He is at most a witness, not a suspect."

Progress Kentucky has been at the center of the controversy surrounding the alleged bugging of McConnell's office in February. McConnell accused the liberal super-PAC of secretly recording a meeting between the senator and his aides in which they debate the merits of attacking actress Ashley Judd’s mental health, views on religion and attitudes about family. 

Judd, a Democrat, was considering a challenge to McConnell in 2014. 

A Kentucky Democrat, Jacob Conway, backed up McConnell's claims on Thursday. He told a Kentucky news site, WFPL, that Reilly and Morrison — the founders and leaders of Progress Kentucky — bragged about the recording to him. 

The incident is currently under investigation by the FBI.

"Shawn has provided material assistance to the investigators, and specifically he has provided information that we believe has been helpful in their efforts to locate Curtis Morrison."

Morrison has not responded to repeated requests for comment, but in a post on what appears to be his personal blog, he declined to comment.

"Also, respectfully, I am not doing interviews at this time and have no plans to do so in the near future," he wrote at the end of a blog post linking to an ethics complaint filed against McConnell by a government watchdog group.

O'Connell said that Reilly met with the U.S. Attorney's office and the FBI within hours of the release of the tapes by Mother Jones, on Tuesday. 

And she disputed Conway's description of events.

"We're aware there's a version of events that's currently being reported where someone purporting to be a spokesman for the Democratic Party is discussing what he believes happened. We completely disavow the version of events that is being circulated," she said.

Conway told multiple outlets that both Morrison and Reilly overheard a private, closed-door conversation in the hallway of McConnell's campaign headquarters, and one taped the conversation while the other held the elevator.

O'Connell did not elaborate on exactly which aspect of Conway's description Reilly disputes, but she did indicate Reilly was in fact present when the recording was made.

"We're not disavowing that he was present. Our client never entered the room where the meeting was taking place," she said.

The recording occurred the day McConnell opened his campaign headquarters in Louisville, Ky. 

The meeting was behind a closed and locked door, and the recording happened without the knowledge of the participants, according to McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton. 

According to Conway, Reilly and Morrison overheard the conversation and recorded it from the hallway outside the meeting room.

The recording revealed McConnell staffers discussing potential lines of attack against Judd and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D).

The staffer leading the discussion cited Judd's mental health problems and her views on religion as potential liabilities for the then-prospective candidate. Judd has since decided against a run.

Progress Kentucky had previously clashed with the McConnell campaign after the group issued a racially charged tweet involving McConnell's wife, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who is of Taiwanese descent.

“As I indicated, last month they were attacking my wife’s ethnicity, and apparently also bugging my headquarters, much like Nixon and Watergate,” McConnell said to reporters on Tuesday.

“That’s what the political left does these days,” he said.

After Progress Kentucky's first tangle with McConnell, multiple Kentucky Democrats disavowed the organization. 

Despite McConnell's attempt to tie the group to the greater "political left," however, Progress Kentucky has few links to the Kentucky Democratic Party, and fewer prominent Democratic supporters still.

According to its first and only Federal Election Commission disclosure, the group raised $1,000 in the month of January, all in small-dollar donations. It raised little more than $6,700 more on its page on Democratic fundraising site ActBlue, with only 187 donors.

Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo, a prominent Democratic figure in Kentucky, said he had "never heard of these folks."

"I've helped the Democratic Party and the Democratic Party's legitimate organizations raise money for a long, long time. If I were asked to help them, if that's the kind of conduct they were involved in, I would never work with them," he told The Hill.

He also distanced the state party from the group.

"I'd bet my house that they are not associated with the state Democratic Party," he said.

"These extremist groups are not affiliated with the state Democratic Party — and I would wager to say that there are groups like that on the Republican side as well," he added.

Reilly was, at one point, affiliated with the Louisville/Jefferson County Democratic Party. He served as vice-chair for the 34th legislative district before stepping down to run Progress Kentucky. And he acted as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention last year.

Nathan Smith, a prominent Kentucky Democratic donor, told The Hill that he doesn't "know much about" Progress Kentucky. 

"I have not had a conversation with them, no. I have no impression — I've not seen anything they've done. I don't know who is even behind the group," he said.

NBC reported Thursday that the group's treasurer, Douglas Davis, has resigned.

"I have resigned my position as treasurer and did not and do not condone any allegations of illegal activity that might have taken place," Davis told NBC.

--This post was updated at 12:13 p.m.