Liberal Kentucky group spotlighted in McConnell audio probe

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NBC News - Domenico Montanaro & Michael O'Brien

(NBC News) - A local liberal group has become the target of scrutiny in a probe into the surreptitious recording published earlier this week capturing a campaign strategy session with Sen. Mitch McConnell’s re-election team.

A local Democratic Party official told NBC News Thursday that two members of the activist group Progress Kentucky claimed that they were responsible for a recording published this week on the website of the progressive magazine Mother Jones. In the audio, McConnell is heard discussing with his staff opposition research into potential Democratic challengers, including the actress Ashley Judd.

"They told it to me right when it happened," said Jacob Conway, a member of the executive committee of Louisville and Jefferson County Democratic Party, in reference to two Progress Kentucky officials.

Conway said Shawn Reilly and Curtis Morrison -- founders of Progress Kentucky, a liberal, anti-McConnell group unaffiliated with the Democratic Party of Kentucky -- told him that day, Feb. 2, "that they got this McConnell recording. They told me because of the tackiness and the horrible things that McConnell was discussing. ... That is why I think they recorded it."

Conway told local NBC affiliate WAVE Thursday afternoon that he is headed to the local FBI office to be interviewed for their investigation. The FBI has not confirmed that yet.

Separately, the treasurer of Progress Kentucky confirmed to NBC News Thursday that he had resigned from the group following the publication of the audio.

Douglas L. Davis, the group’s now-former treasurer, would not comment as to his precise motivations for quitting.

"At this time based on advice of both friends and counsel, I will be not be making a public statement available until everything has been reviewed by an attorney at this time," Davis told NBC News. "I have resigned my position as treasurer and did not and do not condone any allegations of illegal activity that might have taken place."

Asked directly if Reilly and Morrison are responsible for the taping of the strategy session, Davis paused, and said, "I can't comment."

NBC News has reached out to Reilly and Morrison multiple times by email and phone, but they have not responded at this time.

The revelations come as federal investigators begin an investigation into the source of the audio recordings. McConnell’s re-election team has publicly suggested it was the victim of a bugging operation, and McConnell pointed the finger at Progress Kentucky.

A source familiar with the investigation into the leaked McConnell audio told NBC News that the FBI had collected surveillance tape from the building in which the McConnell re-election campaign is headquartered.

The Republican Kentucky senator's re-election team has taken this as a sign that federal investigators are more actively probing the possibility that someone outside of the meeting captured on tape was responsible for the recording.

Conway, the local party official, said he has only now come forward to help disassociate the Democratic Party with any actions alleged of Progress Kentucky, especially given that Democrats in the state have a slim majority in the legislature.

"I don't want the party to be associated with this," he said.

Conway called Reilly and Morrison generally "well-intentioned." "I don't think they had sinister motives,” he said. “They were there, were inexperienced, and got excited."

Progress Kentucky has a contentious history with McConnell this election cycle. Earlier this year, the group leveled criticisms of McConnell based on the ethnicity of his wife, former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.

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