Update, 2:45 p.m. Saturday: Just after voting in Metairie, David Vitter declined to answer a question from The Advocate Saturday morning why he had hired the private investigator.
The arrest could have been ripped from a Hollywood script, playing out on the eve of a statewide election. But was it a drama or a comedy?
Either way, it left one of the most powerful officials in Jefferson Parish pointing a finger at the leading Republican candidate for governor over alleged — if somewhat clumsy — spying.
It all started Friday morning, as Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand convened his regular coffee klatch at the Royal Blend cafe in Old Metairie. At some point, the group’s gossip shifted abruptly from the latest news about Donald Trump to a furtive young man seated at a nearby table.
He was filming the group, the sheriff said. “He was acting very strange and odd,” Normand said in an interview.
Normand confronted the young man, asking him what he was doing.
“Are you filming me?” the sheriff demanded.
The alleged spy, later identified as Robert J. Frenzel, a private investigator from Dallas who has been doing research for U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s campaign, denied taping the group. But he fumbled with his device and couldn’t stop the sheriff from catching a glimpse of its screen, which Normand said showed a recording application. The sheriff then returned to his table.
Later inspection determined that the device — the sheriff could not say late Friday whether it was a phone or some other recording device — had captured several minutes of conversation at the center table.
The sheriff’s breakfast club, composed of several regulars who come and go, continued chatting for a time, the sheriff said. Among the others at the table were Danny DeNoux, a local private investigator; John Cummings, a prominent local attorney; and Danny Martiny, the state senator who also works as an attorney for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.
At some point, someone from the sheriff’s table got up, approached Frenzel and snapped a photograph of him. The 30-year-old bolted out the door, Normand said, but was tailed by members of the breakfast group.
Frenzel darted from the Metairie Road cafe toward St. Francis Xavier School, 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, the sheriff said.
“Five deputies searched the backyards,” Normand said. “He trespassed through at least three or four properties.”
Frenzel eventually was found hiding behind an air-conditioning unit in the 100 block of Stella Street and taken into custody. He was booked on one count of criminal mischief, a misdemeanor, and was released Friday evening, the sheriff said.
“At the present time, we also have probable cause to arrest him for interception of communications under La. R.S. 15:1303, but the investigation is continuing, and we’re putting together all of the information,” Normand said. “We expect we’ll book him on that as well.”
Normand said state law allows one party in a conversation to record it without another party knowing it. But he said a third-party bystander who is not part of the conversation cannot surreptitiously make a recording without breaking the law.
The sheriff said he soon learned Frenzel works for J.W. Bearden & Associates, of Texas, which has received $135,000 this year from the Vitter campaign for “legal fees,” according to campaign finance reports. A message seeking comment from the firm was not returned Friday.
Normand said he telephoned a principal of the Bearden firm, who confirmed Frenzel’s employment.
Normand said he wasn’t able to say for certain that he was the target of Frenzel’s surveillance — “I have no idea, but I’m going to find out,” he said — but had no qualms suggesting Vitter was behind it.
“I’m absolutely ready to connect the dots” on that front, Normand said.
Late Friday night -- several hours after being contacted for comment -- Vitter’s gubernatorial campaign issued a statement saying that Frenzel “works for a firm that we hired to do research, all within the bounds of the law.”
The statement, attributed to Vitter campaign spokesman Luke Bolar, continued: “This includes John Bel Edwards’ business associate and major donor, and his relationship with the John Bel Edwards campaign. It has nothing to do with Newell Normand.”
Normand, who faces token opposition in his re-election bid for sheriff Saturday and had publicly flirted with a bid for governor, is a longtime political enemy of Vitter.
“What do I have to do with the governor’s race? Everybody knows I endorsed (Lt. Gov.) Jay Dardenne,” Normand said. “Everybody at that table is very upset with this. I didn’t know we had become the state of Russia.”
“Everybody does opposition research,” the sheriff added, “but quite frankly, I’m not the opposition.”
The sheriff confirmed late Friday that his investigators found a printout from the paid research site LexisNexis in Frenzel’s vehicle on blogger Jason Brad Berry. Over the past week, Berry has posted on his blog, www.theamerican zombie.com, several interviews with a prostitute named Wendy Ellis who claims to have had a sexual relationship with Vitter at a French Quarter apartment in the late 1990s.
Gubernatorial candidate Scott Angelle, during Wednesday night’s TV debate at LSU, also directed viewers to the website, saying the videos raised questions about Vitter’s fitness to serve as governor.
Editor’s note: This story was updated Oct. 23 to include a response from the Vitter campaign.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.