Earlier this year, I secretly made an audio recording of Sen. Mitch McConnell, the most powerful Republican on the planet, at his campaign headquarters in Kentucky. The released portion of the recording clocks in at less than 12 minutes, but those few minutes changed my life.
I leaked the recording to Mother Jones, which published it with a transcript and analysis in April, and over the days that followed, blogs and cable news shows lit up with the revelations from that one meeting. At the time, McConnell was prepping for a race against the actress Ashley Judd -- it was “the Whac-a-Mole stage of the campaign,” McConnell said smugly -- and the recording captures his team in some Grade-A jackassery, including plans to use Judd’s history of depression against her.
But also up for debate was the the ethics of the audio recording itself. Here's the latest: An assistant U.S. attorney, Bryan Calhoun, telephoned my attorney yesterday, asking to meet with him next Friday as charges against me are being presented to a grand jury.
In a technology age marked by vigilante heroes like Julian Assange and Anonymous, the line between journalism and espionage has grown thin. McConnell was quick to frame himself as the victim of a crime, which was to be expected. It was the guilty repositioning of a politician who has been caught being craven.
What I never expected was the pushback from my own political side. One day in April, I turned on MSNBC and saw U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat from Louisville and one of my personal heroes, rip me a new one:
“These are like petty thieves,” Yarmuth said, referring to me and my friend, Shawn Reilly, who had accompanied me as I made the recording. “They’re an embarrassment to the system. They’re an embarrassment to politics.”
In the days that following the audio leak, I lost my friendship with Shawn. I lost my apartment. I lost my job and my career path.
Unlike Mitch McConnell, I will not paint myself as a victim. I’ve learned a lot in these weeks. But nothing stung like hearing Yarmuth brush me aside like that. I was so upset that all I could do is go for a long run. Frankly, I had a good cry. And as I pounded away the stress and frustration of that moment, I had to wonder: Did I make a mistake?
I’m a liberal activist in Kentucky. I’m also a citizen journalist -- at least I used to be -- because I don’t subscribe to the lie that activism and journalism can be separated. Howard Zinn wrote,“You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” That’s how I see it: Journalism is a moving train, and we all choose which perspectives to bring along on the ride. Needless to say, journalists tend not to like me.
Since 2009, I’ve run a blog that hoped to fill a narrow void in Kentucky media by covering a ridiculous amount of public meetings, civil disobedience actions and political events, where I’m often the only person who shows up with a tripod. My blog’s YouTube channel has more than 100 videos. I started it because I have a long-standing interest in improving the collective knowledge of Kentuckians. The more informed we are, the better decisions we make. But I have other interests as well. One of my goals is to unseat Mitch McConnell.
I don't personally dislike McConnell, but I believe he has failed Kentucky. He has prioritized his personal agenda du jour over the needs of Kentuckians for more than three decades of his so-called public service. It took the two years leading up to the 2012 election -- during which his only aim was to sabotage President Barack Obama -- for a wider audience to catch on to his disgraceful behavior. To hell with the Commonwealth of Kentucky, to hell with the country.
According to Public Policy Polling in their December 11, 2012 poll results, McConnell was “the most unpopular Senator in the country.” And now he faced a high-profile, high-stakes face-off with a Hollywood star.
Of course I was watching, but I also became invested. I've never met Judd, but I identify with her. We're both the same age, have endured similar personal struggles. We both spent our 20s looking out for ourselves while suppressing a calling to higher service. Her transition into a life devoted to public interest has been more streamlined and effective than mine, but I root for her. (Frankly, I hope she reconsiders her decision not to run, and jumps in the race by January.)
I learned about McConnell’s February campaign launch a week prior to the event, through a tip from a reader of my political blog. The tipster did not tell me the time or precise location, but I discovered in only a few days that his HQ was only 1,000 feet from where I then lived. If Sarah Palin had said she could see the McConnell campaign HQ from my deck, she would have survived a fact check.
The meeting was on Groundhog Day, a holiday that would seem to have great ironic meaning for the American political system, and it was freezing cold that morning. I skipped my shower, threw on sweats, enjoyed hot coffee while I checked my email. Typical Saturday on my Mac. In the course of a few minutes, a few hours had passed. I didn’t want to go outside -- I didn’t want to go anywhere -- but I remember thinking if McConnell’s launch was so close to my home and I spent the day hibernating, then I suck at both journalism and activism. And since I don’t have aptitude or passion for much else, that would be problematic for my self-esteem. So I put on my coat and shoes, grabbed my Flip camera, and headed out the door.
At the last minute, I recruited my neighbor, Shawn Reilly, to come with me. Shawn had a phone with access to Twitter, which I thought might provide clues on the meeting’s exact location, and my smart phone had not survived a fall from atop the roof of my moving Jeep.
So we drove to Bishop Lane and scoured the parking lots for McConnell’s black Suburban or any BMWs with “Friend of Coal” license plates. No luck. Twitter was no use either. But that’s when my phone rang.
On the other line was the source who first let me know about the HQ opening. He told me I had missed the launch, pronouncing the donuts cheap and stale and the coffee cold, but the meeting was still going. And he told me the location of the headquarters: the second floor of a building named Watterson Towers.
We headed over.
The front door to the office building was unlocked, and there was no one behind the reception desk. Walking down the hall of the second floor, I recognized McConnell’s voice. He was talking about Sen. Rand Paul’s strategic use of the Tea Party in procuring his 2010 election.
The voices were coming from the other side of a nearby door, which had a window. I pulled out my Flip camera and started to record.
I don’t need to tell you what a weapon the pocket video camera has become. Bartender Scott Prouty changed the trajectory of the entire 2012 election when he captured Mitt Romney in his now classic “47 percent” speech. You just never knew when a politician was going to open his mouth and accidentally reveal his true agenda. And as I held my Flip up to the window, that’s what I was hoping for, but I soon realized that the video I was capturing was the back of a projection screen, and only the audio was of value. So I held the Flip closer to the door vent instead of the window, and began recording the 11:45 minutes of footage later released by Mother Jones.
I was sweating. My heart was racing. I tried to record backup audio on my phone, but my cheap replacement phone would only let me record voice memos of one minute in length. Every time the minute was up, the phone would beep, which was excruciating for the person crouching by a door vent. When a gentleman walked out of the campaign headquarters and into the hall, I put my Flip and phone back in my pocket, and headed to the elevator.
Shawn was already there. We made our escape.
At the time, I wasn’t clear exactly what I had captured on tape. It wasn’t until I listened back to the recording that I heard the entirety of what was taking place. I heard his campaign staff revealing the ugly nature of their pending electoral strategy. I heard an oppo research presenter, whose identity is still a tightly guarded McConnell secret, suggesting that the senator may have used his legislative aides to gather the dirt on Judd. It’s unlawful to use government resources for campaign work, a lesson McConnell should have learned in 1981, when the Louisville Times and a subsequent lawsuit allege he did the same, back when he was serving as the Jefferson County Judge/Executive.
I knew the recording had given me an opportunity, and I wanted to seize it. Though my initial instinct was to release the tape that day, I wondered if it wouldn’t have more impact closer to the election. When announcing her decision not to run, Judd wrote in her statement, "And it’s time Kentucky had an alternative to the cynical politics and self-serving tactics of Mitch McConnell." For me, that confirmed Judd understood Sen. Whac-A-Mole even more than I did. If only there was something I could do to show a broader audience what Kentucky's senior senator was all about? Boy, that sure would be in the public interest. I decided to release the recording sooner.
And so in late March, I reached out to David Corn at Mother Jones, the journalist who released Scott Prouty’s 47 percent tape. I trusted him with the material. On the morning of April 9, he published the full recording and transcript, as well as an analysis -- and the circus began.
That day, McConnell refused to answer reporters’ questions about the recording, deflecting repeated inquiries with portrayals of himself as the target of “Nixonian tactics.”
Before noon, his campaign had fully integrated the McConnell-as-victim strategy, sending out a fundraising email with the heading,“Liberals Wiretap McConnell’s Office.” McConnell campaign manager Jesse Benton spoke to the press using words like “illegally and illicitly” and “unethical and immoral.” And it just wouldn’t be Benton if he didn’t also compare me to a Nazi."This is Gestapo kind of scare tactics,” he said.
I thought back to a quote of McConnell’s from back when Sen. Bob Packwood protested the release of evidence from the Senate Select Ethics Committee that would lead to his 1995 resignation. He said, “As happens with increasing frequency these days the victimizer is now claiming the mantle of the victim. The one who deliberately abused the process now wants to manipulate to his advantage. That won’t wash.”
Increasing frequency, indeed.
Meanwhile, my personal life hit a wall. Shawn never wanted me to release the recording, and our friendship ended in the wake of that disagreement. I was renting a room from his sister-in-law at that time, and to avoid awkwardness, I put my stuff in storage and lived mostly in my Jeep.
It is important to state that sleeping in my car was not a disaster. The self-reliant part felt good, and in the heavy-drinking days that followed, the arrangement solved a few practical matters: Getting home from the bar is real simple when you live in your car. For a short time, I entertained buying a custom van. Maybe next time?
Also, I was unexpectedly liberated from my ambitions to grow as a Louisville journalist. For years, I’d been a contributor to Insider Louisville. But when news broke that I was involved in making the recording, my editor not only fired me, but he wrote an essay about me.
So I can take a hint. I’m in California now, and plan to attend law school here in the fall. I’m 44 years old, and my life path has shifted a bit, but I'm still alright. So far, McConnell has failed to cause me even a fraction of the suffering or inconvenience he's caused most Kentucky families.
But I do wonder sometimes. Like when Yarmuth -- the politician I have referred to over the years as “Congressman Awesome” -- slagged me on MSNBC. (Although I’d like to point out that Yarmuth went on to stress the importance of the recording’s contents, drawing attention to how McConnell hadn’t addressed the thorny questions that it raised.)
It was a frustrating moment, but in truth, I’ve never doubted that making the recording was ethical. I believe in the philosophy of Julian Assange: When we open up governments, we bring in freedom. Helping the voting population better understand a political leader’s true priorities is a good thing. And hell yes, it’s ethical.
I’m reading a book now called “Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy,” which was put together by Ted Widmer and Caroline Kennedy. In case you didn’t know, Nixon wasn’t the only president to make secret recordings in the White House. Most presidents since FDR did, but Kennedy was the first to take recording seriously, making 265 hours of taped material in all. Interestingly, there are times when Kennedy left the Cabinet Room, and the Joint Chiefs were recorded without their consent, but please don’t tell McConnell about that. He’ll have a cow.
What’s fascinating about Kennedy’s recordings is that he appears to have made them in the interest of preserving history, and dispelling mythology, which he knew to be a distraction from truth. He probably intended to use those recordings to write a memoir we’ll sadly never read, but now they offer an uncut look at a real presidency.
Widmer writes, “It has been a problem since the dawn of the presidency -- how do we capture the words and thoughts of the individuals to whom we give so much power? Do they not have a certain obligation to report back to us?”
I would argue that yes, our leaders have an obligation back to us. But we are also allowed some due diligence to capture their words and thoughts however we can.
As for whether my actions were illegal? I don’t believe so, and that position has been supported by some high-profile attorneys, including John Dean, former counsel to President Nixon. Not everyone agrees with Dean, of course. Erik Wemple, whose wife works for Mother Jones, cleared David Corn of wrongdoing in the Washington Post, but me not so much. Wemple wrote: "Yes, reporters, you may accept clandestine recordings from law-breaking scumbags. Just don’t help them do their work."
I could still be prosecuted. And wouldn’t that be smart? Here we are -- the sequester in full tilt, special-education teachers and air traffic controllers are being laid off, funding for medical research is being cut -- and let’s funnel those savings into taking down that destitute guy with the Flip camera.
But I still think it was all worth it. McConnell’s numbers continue to slide. On the morning of the recording’s release, Public Policy Polling released another poll setting McConnell up in virtual races against hypothetical potential candidates like Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. In that poll, McConnell only led Grimes by four points, 45-41.
Last Tuesday, the Huffington Post reported that McConnell and Grimes are now tied, 45-45. Granted, this is still a hypothetical race. But no matter who McConnell actually faces in 2014, Kentucky voters can be on the lookout for his “Whac-A-Mole” game like never before. Already, Grimes is on to him. After McConnell political director Iris Wilbur made it her life’s work in late April to bully Grimes into denouncing what McConnell’s campaign was still calling “an illegal bugging,” Grimes brought it:
"I will tell you that the bully tactics that we see displayed are a continuation of those exemplified in the recording that has surfaced by Mitch McConnell...This Kentucky woman won't be bullied."
I believe all opportunities come with risk, and knowing them in advance allows you to accept the consequences. So I took a risk on Groundhog Day. I stuck my head up to try to raise the general public’s awareness about what the most powerful Republican on the planet is really like. If I get whacked in the process, so be it. At the very least, I hope people will see that McConnell is not what he purports to be. He wants you to think he is sound and moral, but he is neither. He wants you to think he’s a statesman and a leader, but he is a moral coward.
If given another chance to record him, I’d do it again.