By Susan Heavey, Andy Sullivan and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A liberal magazine reported on Tuesday that it had obtained a recording of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell's discussion with campaign aides on putting the mental health and religious views of a potential opponent, actress Ashley Judd, "on the radar screen."
The campaign strategy session was held in February in Louisville, Kentucky, according to Mother Jones magazine, which published the audio and a transcript online but would not reveal its source nor how the recording was obtained.
McConnell has asked the FBI to investigate what he called the "bugging" of his campaign headquarters but has declined to comment on the meeting itself. "This is what you get from the political left in America," he told reporters.
Judd has since decided not to challenge McConnell, who represents Kentucky in the U.S. Senate and is up for re-election in 2014.
In a statement issued through a spokesperson, Judd called the meeting "yet another example of the politics of personal destruction....We expected nothing less from Mitch McConnell and his camp than to take a personal struggle such as depression, which many Americans cope with on a daily basis, and turn it into a laughing matter."
Meetings to talk about "opposition research" are standard fare in campaigns. But recordings of such discussions do not often become public.
FBI Special Agent Mary Trotman confirmed that McConnell's office had contacted the agency. "We are looking into the matter."
McConnell also would not comment on another part of the recording, which indicates that at least one of McConnell's Senate staff members had spent time researching Judd's past comments on everything from abortion to coal mining. Several other staff members could have been involved in the effort - one person in the meeting said the research reflected the work of "a lot of LAs," a common abbreviation for legislative assistant.
Ethics rules bar members from using staff for campaign purposes on government time. Staff members can work for campaigns under Senate rules as long as they are not using public resources - they can not use their office computers, for example, or work on campaign efforts when they are getting paid for legislative work.
"So long as those rules are adhered to, there's no problem with this," said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center. "It's quite common for staff members to work on campaigns; it's not an unusual arrangement at all."
In the recording, the presenter, referring to Judd, says, "This sounds extreme, but she is emotionally unbalanced. I mean it's been documented."
He mentions that Judd's autobiography discusses how "you know, she's suffered some suicidal tendencies. She was hospitalized for 42 days when she had a mental breakdown in the '90s."
The presenter also says, "I know this is sort of a sensitive subject but you know at least worth putting on your radar screen is that she is critical ... sort of traditional Christianity. She sort of views it as sort of a vestige of patriarchy."
One thing an investigation would focus on is whether any law was in fact broken. Federal law and the law in many states prohibit the intercept of oral communication, but that might not apply depending on who made the recording and how.
"Obviously a recording device of some kind was placed in Senator McConnell's campaign office without consent," McConnell's campaign said in a statement. "By whom and how that was accomplished presumably will be the subject of a criminal investigation."
Mother Jones was the magazine that obtained a recording of a fund-raising speech by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney last year in which Romney said 47 percent of Americans were dependent on the government and unlikely to vote for him. When disclosed, the recording dealt Romney a damaging blow.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Fred Barbash, Jackie Frank and Cynthia Osterman)