Mississippi’s GOP Senate Soap Opera Just Keeps Getting Stranger
The race for the Republican nomination for Senate in Mississippi has been over for some six weeks now, but that doesn’t mean that the utter strangeness that has surrounded the story ever since we learned in May that a blogger who supported Chris McDaniel, along with three Tea Party supporters, had been arrested for sneaking into the nursing home where Thad Cochran’s wife is being treated and taking pictures of her. It was just Monday, for example, that McDaniel filed his incredibly weak challenge to the results of the June 24th runoff election and then, late yesterday, the whole story took another bizarre turn when a man who had previously stated that the Cochran campaign had used him to give money to African-American voters said that he had been paid to lie about this by the McDaniel campaign:
The endlessly complicated aftermath of Mississippi’s Republican Senate primary added a new layer of complexity late Tuesday, with reports that the man who had accused the campaign of Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) of buying votes is now accusing a spokesman for Chris McDaniel, Cochran’s opponent, of paying him to lie about the whole thing.
Last month, Stevie Fielder told conservative blogger Charles Johnson in a recorded interview — for which he was paid — that he had been given cash to buy votes for Cochran in the runoff election. In short order, Fielder recanted that claim, which was frankly not really plausible based on the evidence at hand.
The attorney general for the state of Mississippi, Jim Hood (D), confirmed to the Jackson Clarion Ledger last week that he was investigating the source of the money that Fielder received for his interview. (Both Johnson and Fielder have admitted the payment.) “[Fielder] admitted he got paid $2,000 to lie,” Hood told the paper. “We hadn’t seen the source of the funds yet. I don’t know if that blogger had it.”
It now appears that Fielder has implicated Noel Fritsch, McDaniel’s campaign spokesman. Hood aide Jan Schaefer confirmed to the paper that Fielder told investigators that Fritsch was the source of the money. Fritsch released a statement in response to the report, stating that “Charles Johnson paid for the texts & emails Cochran/Wicker staffer Saleem Baird sent that prove Cochran bought Democrat votes.” Responding to a question from the Post, Fritsch indicated that he had not been contacted by the attorney general’s office, and added that he “wonder(s) whether Attorney General Hood will subpoena the email record and text messages the Cochran campaign’s Saleem Baird sent to Rev. Fielder about buying votes.”
Fielder, of course, has already changed his story on his involvement in the affair at least once. It seems clear that he knew who Fritsch was, though. In the original interview with Johnson, audio of which is available at YouTube, it appears that Fritsch is mentioned in passing (though his name is mispronounced) at about the 16:15 mark. Fielder and Johnson are discussing Baird, the Cochran staffer that Fielder accused of paying him money; the interviewer is likely a past collaborator of Johnson’s named Joel Gilbert, according to the Clarion-Ledger.
The McDaniel campaign is denying Fielder’s allegations and Johnson is saying that he was the one who paid Fielder for a story that has been widely discredited. Additionally, it’s worth noting that Fielder himself may not be the most reliable source of information on the planet. According to previous reports, he has previously been involved in cases involving fraud against homeowners in his construction business. Nonetheless, it does appear that he was aware of who Fritsch was at the time he initially talked to Johnson. Whether that means that the McDaniel campaign was involved in all of this or not is an entirely different story, but given the way this story has unfolded it is most assuredly something that will come out at some point.
In other news, one of the three Tea Party supporters who was arrested in connection with the Cochran nursing home story has plead guilty and will be cooperating with prosecutors against the remaining defendants:
John Mary of Hattiesburg on Wednesday pleaded guilty to conspiracy to photograph U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran’s bedridden wife in a nursing home, and is cooperating with authorities.
Mary faced five years in prison and a fine up to $5,000. But District Attorney Michael Guest agreed to a plea deal of five years probation, non-adjudicated, which means the charge would be wiped from Mary’s record provided he meets the terms of his probation.
Guest said Mary has agreed to cooperate with the prosecution of the other defendants in the case, and “We believe his cooperation will be crucial to the prosecution and will strengthen our case.”
Mary’s attorney, Doug Lee, said his client pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy charge. The conspiracy was “to post a message online to harm someone.”
Mary was accused of conspiring with aspiring political blogger Clayton Kelly of Pearl, Laurel P.E. teacher and soccer coach Richard Sager and attorney and state tea party leader Mark Mayfield. Kelly allegedly went into Rose Cochran’s nursing home room in Madison on Easter Sunday and photographed her, using the image for a political hit-piece video on Thad Cochran.
The case made national news amid the bitter Republican primary battle between Cochran and tea party challenger Chris McDaniel. McDaniel denied any involvement of his campaign in the photographing or video.
The four were arrested in May. Mayfield, a McDaniel supporter and campaign volunteer whose late mother had been in the same Alzheimer’s unit with Rose Cochran, committed suicide at his Ridgeland home on June 27.
Mayfield’s family has said his “life crashed” after being accused and they are considering a lawsuit against the city of Madison, its police department or “anyone responsible.”
Lee said Mary admits to having conversations with Mayfield, Sager and Kelly relating to taking a photo of Rose Cochran and how to do it.
“He cooperated with police from the very moment they contacted him, and he will continue to cooperate with them until the end of this entire matter,” Lee said. “He was adamant that he wanted to take responsibility for his part in all of this, and he very thoroughly regrets any pain he has caused the Cochran family.”
Attorneys for the defendants have said that while taking the photographs was ill-advised and distasteful, it doesn’t violate any felony laws on the books. They claim the charges are politically motivated and overkill for what should have been at most a misdemeanor case. Authorities disagree. Guest has said he plans to present the case to a grand jury.
Kelly’s attorney Kevin Camp on Wednesday questioned why he was not notified about Mary’s plea. He also said Wednesday was the first he had heard about Mary’s “new charge” of conspiring to the crime of “posting of messages through electronic media for purpose of causing injury to any person.”
Kelly was initially charged with felony exploitation of a vulnerable adult, a charge usually reserved for those who steal from, sexually abuse or neglect an elderly person. Later, the defendants were charged with conspiracy under the state’s video voyeurism law.
The one unanswered question about the nursing home break-in case has been what role, if any, the McDaniel campaign or anyone affiliated with it may have played in the matter, and what they knew about the events prior to the time that they had been made public. The initial comments from the campaign in the wake of Clayton Kelly’s arrest were, to say the very least, confusing and seemed to leave open the possibility that the campaign was at the very least aware of who was behind the video of Mrs. Cochran and how it was obtained long before the police had made an arrest or announced publicly that Kelly was connected to the break-in and the video. Given his relationship with McDaniel, Mary’s cooperation could provide an answer to that question.
In any case, though, it’s fairly apparent that this story is far from over, even if the results of the runoff itself are exceedingly clear to everyone except Chris McDaniel and his supporters.