The bungled political espionage that unfolded hours before Saturday’s election has exposed and perhaps deepened the enmity between U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, fellow Republicans who traded barbs Monday as Vitter turned his attention to the gubernatorial runoff next month.
The animus between the two elected officials traces its roots to a similar split between Vitter and the late Harry Lee, Normand’s combative predecessor. And the relationship appears to have reached a nadir after Normand caught a private investigator hired by Vitter’s campaign secretly recording the sheriff’s regular coffee gathering at the Royal Blend cafe in Old Metairie.
Vitter, who won 23 percent of the vote in Saturday’s primary, besting Republican rivals Jay Dardenne and Scott Angelle to gain a spot in the Nov. 21 runoff, has sought to distance himself from the incident, telling the Monroe News Star that he had not personally directed the investigator, Robert Frenzel, to spy on Normand.
He told the newspaper he believed Normand had sought to embarrass him on the eve of the election by having Frenzel arrested.
“Sadly, he’s been on a campaign against me for a long time,” Vitter told the News Star. “I’ve reached out to him numerous times about legislation affecting law enforcement and other issues (to no avail). Obviously, (the sheriff’s) motives in the arrest were political. It was a bizarre and silly incident.”
Normand, still indignant during an interview with The Advocate on Monday, said he had in fact met with Vitter for more than an hour to discuss law enforcement issues, although he said it was not an entirely cordial exchange.
Normand said he told Vitter that the latter “would be the worst governor in the history of the state of Louisiana.”
“I’ve been straight up, brutally honest with this man,” Normand said, likening Vitter to “a 5-year-old in the sandbox.”
“I haven’t done anything against him other than endorse (Lt. Gov.) Jay Dardenne. As a taxpaying citizen, I’m offended by the fact that he’s got people videotaping folks that I’m having coffee with.”
Normand also alluded to the prostitution rumors that have dogged Vitter since 2007 and popped up intermittently during the campaign.
“Unlike in the prostitution case, why don’t you tell us what your sin is?” Normand said, referring to Vitter’s admission to committing a “very serious sin” after his phone number appeared in the records of the D.C. Madam. “What did you direct (Frenzel’s firm) to do?”
Frenzel, 30, was booked Friday on criminal mischief, a misdemeanor count that Normand said stemmed not from Frenzel’s recording of the sheriff but from his “running through backyards” after fleeing the cafe.
The group being snooped on included lawyer and developer John Cummings, a major supporter of Democratic candidate John Bel Edwards. The Vitter campaign has suggested Cummings was the target of the recording.
Normand said Monday that the matter remained under investigation, and he appeared to backpedal from his statement last week that Frenzel would be booked on a felony count of violating the state’s wiretapping law.
“I’m not looking to charge him just for the sake of charging him,” Normand said, adding that investigators are trying to determine whether the group, under the law, had a reasonable expectation of privacy chatting in a cafe. “From an evidentiary standpoint, I think we’ll probably get to the point that we could.”
“We told the media everything we know about he incident,” Vitter told anchor Randi Rousseau. Frenzel “was arrested for a misdemeanor — not spying — and any notion that he was spying is ridiculous. He was in a coffee shop. He wasn’t wiretapping anyone.”
The bad blood between the sheriff and the senator follows a long-running — and very public — feud between Vitter and Lee, the colorful seven-term Jefferson sheriff who was Normand’s political mentor. Lee once declared, after filing suit against Vitter in a spat over Tulane University legislative scholarships, that while his job was to catch crooks, “my hobby is to expose hypocrites.”
The sheriff also sued Vitter in the mid-1990s for defamation over a remark Vitter made about Lee’s involvement in an advertising campaign supporting video poker. “If you don’t see the world the way he does, you’re wrong,” Lee told The Times-Picayune at the time.
Vitter, in a letter to the editor around the same period, wrote that Lee’s “modus operandi” was to “file defamation suits with great bluster, only to let them die later for lack for substance.”
Normand, who was re-elected Saturday with 89 percent of the vote, served as Lee’s personal driver and confidant before ascending the ranks of the Sheriff’s Office. As long ago as 1996, there was speculation that Lee was grooming Normand to run against Vitter, then a state representative from Metairie.
Normand considered running for governor this year but decided instead to seek a third term as sheriff.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.