MADISON, Miss. (AP) — Investigators say a Mississippi tea party official and two other men arrested Thursday conspired with a conservative blogger to use photographs of U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran's ill wife to push allegations that the longtime Republican senator was involved in an inappropriate relationship with another woman.
Conservative blogger Clayton Thomas Kelly, 28 of Pearl, was arrested last week on allegations he took the photos of Rose Cochran on Easter Sunday without her permission at the nursing home where she's lived for 13 years for dementia. Thursday's arrests included attorney Mark Mayfield of Ridgeland, a Central Mississippi Tea Party board member who has helped raise campaign cash for Cochran's Republican primary opponent, Chris McDaniel. Elementary school teacher Richard Sager of Laurel and John Mary of Hattiesburg also were charged.
McDaniel, who is backed by the tea party, has said he wasn't involved in any attempt to take pictures of Rose Cochran.
"As we have said since day one, the violation of the privacy of Mrs. Cochran is out of bounds for politics and is reprehensible," McDaniel said in a statement Thursday. "Any individuals who were involved in this crime should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
Cochran campaign spokesman Jordan Russell said any suggestion that the 76-year-old six-term senator is having an inappropriate relationship with another woman is "outrageous and offensive and the dirtiest form of politics. As we see from the arrests today, these people will stop at nothing to smear Thad Cochran, including a despicable act like the one committed against Rose Cochran."
The Cochran family says Rose Cochran has lost the ability to speak and is receiving hospice care.
During questioning in court, Madison police investigator Vickie Currie said investigators believe the conspiracy was intended to use images of Rose Cochran to advance allegations Cochran was having an inappropriate relationship. Currie said it was Kelly's third attempt to photograph the 72-year-old woman.
The mushrooming legal action threatened to subsume the primary challenge by McDaniel, a state senator from Ellisville. Cochran was elected to the Senate in 1978 after six years in the House. The primary is June 3.
Kelly earlier was charged with exploitation of a vulnerable adult and filming without permission. A conspiracy charge was added Thursday in Madison City Court.
His lawyer, Kevin Camp, could not persuade Judge Dale Danks to dismiss or downgrade the exploitation charge to a misdemeanor. Camp argued that the state needed to prove the value of the crime was more than $250 to hold Kelly on a felony charge. Currie, however, argued that Rose Cochran's image was "priceless" and the state had probable cause to show a felony had been committed. Camp said in an interview Wednesday that Kelly obtained a visitor's pass to the nursing home and photographed Rose Cochran through a door that was opened to a hallway.
Danks chose to send the case to a grand jury and Kelly was being held on $200,000 bond.
Mayfield, arrested by police at his law office, was charged with conspiracy and the judge gave him a bond of $250,000. Though his lawyers objected that the bond was too high, they said Mayfield would post it.
Sager was charged with evidence tampering and conspiracy and held on $500,000 bond.
Mary was charged with two counts of conspiracy involving the exploitation of a vulnerable person and the photographing or filming of a person without permission where there is an expectation of privacy. Investigators said Mary was released on his own recognizance because of health issues.
The roles of Mayfield, Sager and Mary in the conspiracy were not immediately clear. Federal Election Commission records show Mayfield contributed $500 to McDaniel's campaign in March. Madison police refused to comment and court employees would not release documents on the charges.
The investigation into the pictures has added another set of personal attacks to a bitter race. Outside groups are running ads that say Cochran is out of touch with Mississippi and not conservative enough. Cochran supporters are criticizing McDaniel over remarks he made while hosting a talk radio show, cases he brought as a lawyer, and whether his philosophy would benefit the nation's poorest state, which is highly dependent on federal spending.
Mayfield has been involved in local tea party politics for years. Since 2011, he has sent out tea party news releases in support of charter schools, a voter identification law, U.S. border security and gun rights.
The "Chris McDaniel for United States Senate" Facebook page includes a photo showing Mayfield was among the sponsors of an April 21 McDaniel fundraising reception at the Capital Club in downtown Jackson. Ticket prices ranged from $100 a person to $2,500 a person. The reception took place the day after the photo was taken of Rose Cochran in the nursing home.