Issue October 28, 2008

Dissection: Recorder-gate 2008

Is it Lunsford or McConnell pulling the trick in the final days of the most important congressional race in the country?

Here is how the latest narrative in Sen. Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign goes:

A tracker for the National Republican Senatorial Committee stashes a digital audio recorder on Democratic challenger Bruce Lunsford’s podium before a debate in the western Kentucky city of Gilbertsville last Thursday, apparently hoping to catch Lunsford saying something other than that which could’ve been recorded in front, via the public address system. After the debate, as he’s leaving the stage, Lunsford grabs the recorder and walks away. He refuses to return the recorder to one Richard St. Onge III, a smarmy college-age dude with buzzed blonde hair (1) who’s been tracking the Lunsford campaign for the NRSC. Then Lunsford hands the recorder to a staffer of his own who allegedly erases it — some 65 files, according to St. Onge, including the one from that day. The whole thing lasts 30 minutes.

Then St. Onge files a complaint with the Marshall County Attorney’s Office, accusing Lunsford and his top consultant, Achim Bergmann, of petty theft and destruction of property, despite having recovered the recorder. Then, through some act of technological aptitude revealed a full four days later, the recording reappears — in the form of an advertisement on the NRSC website during which the listener is treated to an aggressive-sounding person who is most likely Lunsford instructing someone not to return the recorder.

It’s a compelling story that’s carried the McConnell-Lunsford news cycle through some of the bleakest days in the Senate minority leader’s campaign career, as his party braces for predicted large-scale defeat Tuesday and with his own race polling consistently at a tie.

The metanarrative is simple: McConnell is the victim of a “dirty” political “trick.” This, despite two key facts: Per his campaign’s own statement to press, McConnell is not technically involved (NRSC staff and equipment); thus, it is not in fact he who is the victim — if there is one, which is suspect — but St. Onge. Second, there has been no actual trick performed, just a misunderstanding between campaigns during the final, intense days of a heated race that was catapulted into absurd political theater. (2)

Now, the more fundamental question, one that has heretofore been ignored by media covering this: Who did something wrong here?

Kevin Byars is the sheriff of Marshall County and, according to the copy of St. Onge’s complaint (3) forwarded to me by the NRSC (the sheriff’s office refused to release anything under the state’s open records law pending the investigation), the responding officer in this incident. He said Monday he expected to complete his investigation and have the results to the county attorney’s office sometime Tuesday.

“All I can say is it’s still ongoing,” he said when pressed for details. (4)

What happens next is up to Jason Darnall, assistant Marshall County attorney. He said he expects to have the evidence before him sometime Tuesday, at which point he could decide whether this is possibly more than a misdemeanor, something he couldn’t say for sure in an interview Monday.

“Based on the information I have so far, more than likely we’re going to submit to the grand jury for their consideration,” Darnall said. That could happen as early as Nov. 12, he said.

The Marshall County grand jury meets once a month to consider whether complaints like St. Onge’s should translate into criminal proceedings. In the past three years, Marshall County grand juries have offered up indictments mostly for suspects accused of serious crimes, including an alleged rapist, an alleged murderer, a man in possession of illegal drugs and child pornography, and someone conspiring to distribute meth.

Asked whether he thought this seemed like political opportunism, Darnall said that while a lot of people probably think that, he’s following procedure.

“Nevertheless, we do have a complaining witness who has complained, and we feel like it does warrant investigation,” he said. “And in this situation, there’s probably no better body out there to take a look at everything and say, Hey, do we need to charge, or is this just politicking? Whatever decision they happen to make, we’re going to go with it.”

Cooperative at first, the NRSC (strangely) stopped returning calls and e-mails from this newspaper after providing a copy of the St. Onge complaint, which was posted shortly thereafter on www.leoweekly.com. The main question asked in a phone message and e-mail: Why was the recorder on the podium?

In two subsequent media accounts, NRSC spokeswoman Rebecca Fisher — with whom LEO Weekly spoke both by phone and e-mail as the story broke — gave different explanations, telling The Courier-Journal it was placed there to get a higher-quality recording of the debate and The Lexington Herald-Leader that the spaces for recorders were filled. Ultimately, she did not respond to requests for comment.

Calling the complaint a “distraction,” the Lunsford campaign — a deliberative body if there was one — finally issued a statement Monday.

“This time they were caught in a political dirty trick when they illegally bugged Bruce’s podium, and now they want to waste taxpayer dollars playing the victim,” said Lindsey Berman, communications director for the campaign, in the statement. “McConnell’s staff has already been caught lying about the matter. The whole thing is just ridiculous.” (5)

(1) I met him once, at a bar near a Lunsford event he was supposed to be monitoring. I don’t want to provide him an undue bad rep, so I will offer this detail: He refused to tell me his last name, despite my already knowing his rank and affiliation. Though his conduct here is rancorous, it appears he was acting under orders, so there’s that. As well, I’d rather not end up arguing against a defamation complaint, thank you.

(2) Here I would venture to say that these theatrics would not have taken place were the Republicans not fearful of where this seems to be going: McConnell has gotten all negatives from the tanking economy, bailout bill and continuing slide of George W. Bush, with whom McConnell voted 93 percent of the time.

(3) A rather entertaining read, the complaint alleges that 65+ recordings “had been deleted by the Lunsford campaign acting in conspiracy with Mr. Lunsford to destroy property.”

(4) It was reported Tuesday that Byars’ investigation did not actually include the recorder, as he was unable to obtain it from the NRSC, and that the investigation also could not include the recorder’s newfound contents because the chain of command had been broken in obtaining said contents.

(5) Eavesdropping being the “illegal,” which is as questionable as St. Onge’s complaint, the debate being a public forum; and the “lying” being McConnell adviser Scott Jennings’ early claim that the recorder wasn’t on Lunsford’s podium.