Late tonight, David Vitter’s gubernatorial campaign responded to the bombshell story that their private investigator was arrested after illegally recording a conversation between Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, State Sen. Danny Martini, Danny DeNoux, and John Cummings, a private attorney, at a coffee shop in Old Metairie. Once confronted, the investigator, 30-year-old Robert Frenzel of Dallas, attempted to flee the scene. Jim Mustian and Tyler Bridges of The Advocate report:
Frenzel darted from the Metairie Road cafe toward St. Francis Xavier School, the sheriff said, making his way toward Vincent Avenue. The sheriff said the man jumped the gate of an abandoned residence, prompting Normand to call several deputies to the scene to search for him.
“Five deputies searched the backyards,” Normand said. “He trespassed through at least three or four properties.”
The Vitter campaign, somewhat incredulously, claim they had hired Frenzel to spy on John Cummings, a well-known attorney in the New Orleans area who recently gained international praise for transforming Whitney Plantation into the nation’s first slavery museum. “This person (Frenzel) works for a firm we hired to do research, all within the bounds of the law,” the Vitter campaign claimed in a statement provided to The Times-Picayune. “This includes John Bel Edwards’ business associate and major donor (Cummings). It has nothing to do with Newell Normand.”
Cummings is, indeed, a donor both to John Bel Edwards and to several other campaigns in Louisiana, and Sheriff Normand recently endorsed Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne’s campaign for governor. The Vitter campaign has paid Frenzel’s employers, J.W. Bearden and Associates, more than $130,000 in so-called “legal fees,” though they’re likely almost entirely for private investigation. Bearden, according to a source, was hired by David Vitter at the recommendation of Congressman Steve Scalise.
Sheriff Normand announced late tonight that Frenzel would be charged with felony crimes related to the actions he conducted as an employee of the Dallas-based private investigative agency J.W. Bearden, which has made over $130,000 since early this year with the Vitter campaign.
Sheriff Noland later confirmed that Frenzel’s vehicle contained, among other things, a dossier on the online investigative journalist Jason Brad Berry of The American Zombie. Berry’s most recent stories suggest, using documentary interview footage of several women involved in the escort business in New Orleans during the late 1990s, that Vitter was, in fact, a client. Only yesterday, Kevin Allman confirmed another story: A barber across the street from the brothel who remembers then-State Rep. David Vitter getting his haircut while waiting for his escort to return.
Importantly, Louisiana is a one-party consent state on issues like these, a concept that is often misunderstood. Put simply, in order to record a private conversation, you need consent from at least one person participating. If you are that party, great, but you still have to be participating. A one-party consent rule doesn’t mean anyone with an iPhone can spy on anyone they want.
The Vitter campaign announced tonight that they were not spying on elected officials; they were, instead, furtively monitoring, following, and recording a private citizen whose only crime, it appears to be, is that he donated to John Bel Edwards.
If, in fact, the Vitter campaign had paid a company in Dallas to hire investigators, drive them to New Orleans, and surreptitiously record the private conversations of his political opponents without ever being a “party” to those conversations, we are likely looking at the possibility of interstate conspiracy charges, which necessitates a federal investigation.
The Vitter campaign’s statement tonight about targeting their efforts against Mr. Cummings likely creates more problems for them. It is a tacit admission of illegality and intimidation against a private citizen whose only “crime,” as it were, is donating to John Bel Edwards. That said, I do not buy the Vitter campaign’s story, and I imagine it will change dramatically over the next few days.
Scott Angelle and Jay Dardenne both issued statements: