It began when news broke the night before the Oct. 24 election that a private gumshoe working for U.S. Sen. David Vitter had been spying that morning on Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand and several other men at a Metairie coffee shop, only to be discovered and arrested after a brief flight into the nearby neighborhood.
Five days later, one of the men being surveilled that day — a private eye himself — acknowledged he had been paid to dig up dirt on gubernatorial candidate Vitter.
On Tuesday, a bizarre “Spy vs. Spy” caper that has helped enliven the governor’s race took an even stranger turn when Normand told reporters that video seized from Vitter’s private eye showed operatives from his campaign urging a woman to discredit damaging claims that a prostitute had made about the senator.
Normand’s comments came a day after Vitter publicly accused New Orleans lawyer John Cummings — a supporter of state Rep. John Bel Edwards, Vitter’s opponent in the Nov. 21 runoff — of paying for “false testimony” against him. Vitter said he had “significant supporting affidavits and documentation” to back his claim, and he said he had turned over the materials to U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite’s office several weeks ago.
Normand said he welcomed Vitter’s move, and he told reporters Tuesday that he, too, has delivered documents to federal investigators.
It’s not clear which federal crimes either camp believes might have been committed.
But their political motives are clearer. Vitter, weary of having to fend off references to his having hired prostitutes, is seeking to turn the tables by suggesting his political enemies are buying slanderous stories.
Normand — who supported also-ran gubernatorial hopeful Jay Dardenne and who has said Vitter would be the “worst governor in the history of the state of Louisiana” — is trying to blunt Vitter’s attack, saying the senator is engaged in subterfuge himself
Normand said the videotaped interview in his possession — which was captured on one of the same cameras used to tape Normand and his pals in the coffee shop — ends with the woman signing the affidavit the Vitter camp wanted.
He said it was shot at an IHOP in Hammond on Oct. 20 — precisely when Wendy Cortez, who in 2007 claimed that Vitter had paid her regularly for sex, was resurfacing with even more salacious claims about the senator to a New Orleans-based blogger that the Vitter campaign wanted to quash. Normand said the Vitter operative was particularly concerned about keeping the woman’s claims out of the “mainstream media.”
Normand said the Vitter operative brought an affidavit to the woman that already included her claims.
“It was one of the most obnoxious interviews I’ve seen in my 38 years of law enforcement,” Normand told reporters. “He came in with a prepared affidavit to sign and spent probably 30 minutes suggesting what she should write in between the lines and put her initials on as it related to trying to discredit the story of Wendy Cortez.” (Cortez also goes by the last name of Ellis.)
Normand said he will meet with FBI officials on Thursday to discuss the videos and other findings. He did not say what he thinks the federal interest in the materials might be.
Vitter likewise didn’t enumerate what federal crime he believes his opponents might have committed, but he said he had evidence of “an illegal scheme between a business associate and major donor of John Bel Edwards and a private investigator to pay for false testimony from witnesses against me.”
The Vitter campaign had previously said that their PI, Robert Frenzel, had been at the coffee shop to film not Normand but Cummings, who lives in Metairie and sometimes attends Normand’s coffee klatsches.
Cummings, his wife Donna and their law firm have donated a total of $25,000 to Edwards’ campaign.
Another person at the table was private investigator Danny DeNoux, who has acknowledged finding Cortez and taking blogger Jason Brad Berry to Texas to videotape her. Berry posted interviews with her on his blog, the American Zombie.
The Vitter campaign responded to Normand’s statements Tuesday by questioning his impartiality as Jefferson Parish’s sheriff.
“John Bel Edwards’ political allies are clearly using their badges to play politics, which is horrible,” the campaign said in a statement. “They’re also trying to distract attention from serious wrongdoing by an Edwards business associate that I referred to the U.S. attorney and FBI some time ago, along with a stack of supporting evidence.”
At Monday’s campaign forum, Vitter described what happened at the Royal Blend coffee shop in Metairie as “silly.” He defended Frenzel’s work, saying, “That person in the coffee shop was doing nothing improper, nothing illegal, no illegal spying.”
Edwards attacked Vitter’s view that it was “silly.”
“It’s serious,” Edwards said. “And it shows the desperation that’s at work with Sen. David Vitter and his campaign right now.”
Normand went public with his comments about Vitter and his operatives only hours before Vitter and Edwards were set to square off in their first televised debate in the Nov. 21 runoff. Polls show Edwards with an eight- to 20-point advantage.
During a 50-minute news conference, Normand took pains to say that while he endorsed Dardenne, a Vitter opponent, in the primary, he has conducted the investigation into Frenzel’s activities completely apolitically.
But he could not hide his disdain for the senator.
“David Vitter is all about David Vitter,” Normand said. “And now he’s trying to make himself out to be the victim.”
Several times, Normand said he found it “obnoxious” that Frenzel filmed him and his friends at the Royal Blend, where he said they gather virtually every morning to shoot the bull.
Normand said what he called a “flawed” interview with the woman at the Hammond IHOP was shot by Wes Bearden, a Dallas-based private investigator. The Vitter campaign has paid Bearden at least $135,000 for “legal fees,” according to the campaign’s finance reports. Frenzel, who works for Bearden, secretly filmed the conversation at the IHOP, Normand said.
The sheriff said he did not want to identify the woman interviewed by Bearden because he wanted the FBI to have the first crack at her.
“She is friends with or is an acquaintance of Wendy and some of Wendy’s children,” he told reporters. “I want the FBI to talk to her first, and not you.”
Frenzel was booked on criminal mischief, a misdemeanor, but Normand said he is still weighing a more serious charge of spying on him and his friends.
He showed two small devices that he said Frenzel had used to record him and the others at the Royal Blend. He said one device looked like a cellphone but was actually a sophisticated recording camera.
His spokesman, Col. John Fortunato, said the Sheriff’s Office obtained a warrant to search the material on Frenzel’s recording devices. The warrant was signed by 24th Judicial District Judge Paul Schneider .