It was “Spy vs. Spy” — for real.
When U.S. Sen. David Vitter’s gumshoe, Robert Frenzel, staked out the Royal Blend coffee shop in Old Metairie the morning before Saturday’s gubernatorial primary, one of the men he wound up spying on was a PI himself, who had been hired to dig up dirt on Vitter.
In a state that’s nearly bankrupt, the first week of the runoff campaign has been dominated by a circuslike sideshow, as Vitter and his foes argue over the meaning of an explosion of espionage that feels a bit like a miniature Cold War being fought in Jefferson Parish and New Orleans. Vitter, a Republican, will face Democratic state Rep. John Bel Edwards in a Nov. 21 runoff.
Frenzel actually was after John Cummings — the “man with the white beard” whom Vitter’s gubernatorial campaign had wanted him to watch — and Frenzel was right on his heels when Cummings entered the coffee shop.
As Cummings joined his regular coffee klatch at a large table, Frenzel sat down nearby. Among the others present were Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, state Sen. Danny Martiny and private eye Danny DeNoux.
Initial news accounts suggested that the Vitter campaign was most interested in Normand — a vociferous critic of the U.S. senator — but it’s possible that the campaign also had a keen interest in DeNoux, though it’s not clear Frenzel recognized him.
DeNoux now says he is the PI who recently located Wendy Ellis, a former prostitute who just before the election amplified claims she made in 2007 that she had a sexual relationship with Vitter in New Orleans years earlier, when he was a state representative and then a freshman congressman.
It was DeNoux who brought blogger Jason Brad Berry to Ellis. This resulted in Berry, a week before the Oct. 24 primary, posting videos on his website, www.theamericanzombie.com, that roiled the gubernatorial campaign. In them, Ellis claimed her relationship with Vitter was deeper and more complicated than she had suggested in 2007 interviews with The Times-Picayune and at a news conference organized by Hustler magazine that year.
DeNoux told The Advocate on Wednesday that he did the opposition research on Vitter for a “businessman,” whom he said he could not name. The businessman asked him to share his information with Berry, DeNoux said, adding that he did not know the blogger previously.
DeNoux said his client was not Cummings, a prominent trial attorney, large landowner in New Orleans and longtime foe of Vitter. DeNoux said Cummings is a friend of his but that he has never done paid work for him. DeNoux also said the client for the Vitter assignment was not an elected official and not the Democratic Party.
Frenzel’s surveillance of Cummings at the Royal Blend ended in comical fashion when Normand concluded that the PI was trying to record him and confronted him. Frenzel darted out of the shop and ran up Metairie Road. DeNoux was among those who helped track him down in a nearby neighbor’s yard.
Frenzel, who works for J.W. Bearden and Associates, a Dallas-based firm, was arrested by Jefferson Parish sheriff’s deputies and booked with criminal mischief. Vitter campaign officials acknowledged he was working for them and said Cummings was the target of their interest.
After the arrest, deputies searched Frenzel’s car and found a dossier on Berry, who has told The Advocate and WWL-TV that he believes Frenzel was snooping around his home.
Berry said he was spooked last Wednesday night when a car with a man at the wheel drove slowly by his New Orleans home four times within a span of minutes. The blogger, who lives on a quiet street that gets no through traffic, was sitting on his porch when the car first passed by, then walked toward the sidewalk and got a good look at the man and his car. At one point, they made eye contact, he said.
Berry got so concerned that he canceled plans to go out that evening. “It made me nervous,” he said.
Berry provided WWL-TV with footage from a security camera in front of his home that shows the same silver Ford hatchback that JPSO deputies searched outside the coffee shop on Friday passing by his house two days earlier.
A professional videographer, Berry has been investigating Vitter for five years for his blog, which he says he publishes from a sense of civic duty. It was his research into Vitter that presumably led the businessman to have DeNoux pass along his information to Berry.
DeNoux, 62, is a former New Orleans cop who has been a private investigator since 1982.
“I can find just about anyone,” he said.
After a lot of digging, DeNoux found members of Ellis’ family and asked them to pass along word that he wanted to speak with her. He said he wasn’t sure he would hear anything until she called him on Oct. 12.
The next morning, he and Berry flew together to Texas to meet Ellis in a city neither he nor Berry has been willing to identify. They returned to New Orleans that night with 90 minutes of videotaped claims by Ellis about Vitter. Four days later, Berry posted excerpts from the video on his website.
DeNoux said he has completed his assignment for the businessman.
“It’s done,” he said. “I did what he asked me to do. I had no dog in this hunt.”
Frenzel, meanwhile, has been released. He is due in court in January.
Staff writers Jim Mustian and Gordon Russell contributed to this story.