JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran's campaign said Wednesday that his Republican primary challenger in Mississippi failed to report a potential crime to authorities after learning someone briefly posted an online video with an unauthorized photo of Cochran's bedridden wife in a nursing home.
The challenger, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, said he had nothing to do with the video and won't engage the Cochran campaign in an "absurd witch hunt."
The sharp exchange came a day before a scheduled court appearance for Clayton Thomas Kelly, a conservative blogger who was arrested Friday and charged with a exploiting a vulnerable adult, a felony that would carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison for a conviction. Police on Wednesday added a second felony charge against Kelly, photographing or filming another person without permission where there is expectation of privacy, which is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Authorities say Kelly photographed 72-year-old Rose Cochran, without permission on Easter Sunday, in the nursing home where she has lived the past 13 years with dementia. The Cochran family says she has lost the ability to speak and is receiving hospice care.
Thad Cochran, 76, and McDaniel, 41, compete in a June 3 primary that pits a former Senate Appropriations committee chairman against a tea party-backed challenger. Cochran was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978 after six years in the House. McDaniel was elected to the state Senate in 2007.
Since Kelly's arrest, the Cochran and McDaniel campaigns have argued about who knew about the online video and what they did or didn't do about it.
In a radio interview Tuesday with SuperTalk Mississippi, McDaniel said his campaign had nothing to do with the video and if anyone had photographed his wife or mother in a nursing home he would have filed charges the same day. He also questioned why the Cochran campaign waited two weeks before the primary to give information to police.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Cochran campaign spokesman Jordan Russell said the Cochran camp learned about the video shortly after it was posted April 26 because they received text alerts or calls. He said Cochran hired an attorney, who investigated and gave information to police in Madison last Thursday.
Russell said every time McDaniel or his campaign staffers answer questions about the video, "a new version of what should be a very simple story comes out."
McDaniel on Wednesday released an open letter to Cochran, saying that in the beginning of the campaign, "I respected you as a man of honor." McDaniel said he's reconsidering that because he believes the Cochran campaign has slandered him by trying to connect him to Kelly.
"To date, you have refused to come home to Mississippi and debate," McDaniel wrote. "Until then, I will not engage either your campaign or the liberal media in their absurd witch hunt."
Kelly, 28, of Pearl, Mississippi, has a blog called Constitutional Clayton, which includes a post that says: "When it comes to Republicans with a bad voting record, you can't get any worse than Thad Cochran."
Kelly is in the Madison County Detention Center under $100,000 bond and is scheduled for a preliminary hearing Thursday in Madison city court. His attorney, Kevin Camp, said Kelly voluntarily removed the online video about 90 minutes after posting it and is cooperating with investigators.
Camp told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Kelly does not dispute the accusations against him but notes Kelly did not sneak into the nursing home, having signed in and was given a visitors' pass.
He said Kelly photographed Rose Cochran through an open door and, "He was doing some investigative journalism, was what he was attempting to do."
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