Newell Normand, Sheriff of Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish, enjoys talking politics most mornings with his breakfast club of cronies at the Royal Blend Coffee shop in beautiful historic Metairie.
But Normand’s regular gathering was interrupted on October 23rd, the eve of a statewide primary election, when he and his group noticed a man at another table recording them.
Angered by the discovery, the group confronted the man, Robert J. Frenzel, snapping a photo of him before chasing him out of the coffeeshop and through the surrounding neighborhood.
But the group lost sight of Frenzel, so the sheriff called in deputies to scour the area, finding the suspect hiding behind an air-conditioner unit. He was promptly arrested and charged with criminal mischief before the story went public causing a huge stir in the already contentious race for governor here, adding another notch in the already tattered belt of Louisiana political scandals.
As it turns out, Frenzel is a private investigator working for J.W. Bearded and Associates, a legal firm hired by the campaign of David Vitter, the Republican senator running for governor against Democratic state representative John Bel Edwards in the upcoming November 21 election.
And it wasn’t Normand he was spying on, but one of the sheriff’s associates seated at the table, John Cummings, a prominent New Orleans attorney and big supporter of Edward’s campaign for governor, who is restoring a plantation he purchased 15 years ago into the nation’s first slavery museum.
“Frenzel works for a firm that we hired to do research, all within the bounds of the law…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 noted that the tactic of spying on political advisories is not uncommon, continued to assert that he was the target:
“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.”
But as mentioned, members of the opposition were seated at the table.
Among Normand’s breakfast club besides Cummings were Danny Martiny, a state senator, and local private investigator named Danny DeNoux, a former New Orleans cop who according to TheHayride.com, a conservative political commentary site, is said to work for Normand.
In fact, DeNoux last week told The Advocate that he was the one that helped expose Vitter’s scandal in 2007 about his habit of visiting brothels, which resulted in a New York Times headlined, “A Senator’s Moral High Ground Gets a Little Shaky.”
And he has hinted that he has done more investigative work on this same scandal that might end up costing him the election, most likely tracking down former prostitutes who had sex with Vitter in the past, leading to series of video interviews for a Louisiana blog called American Zombies.
Two of the videos are posted below, but there is much more on the site. There is also an MSNBC news segment from 2007 where the same prostitute passed a polygraph test saying she had regular sex with Vitter twice a week for four months at $300-a-session.
Since 2010, I’ve researched accusations levied against Senator David Vitter that he solicited prostitutes here in Louisiana. He categorically denied the allegation in his press conference on July 16, 2007, stating “…like those New Orleans stories in recent reporting… those stories are NOT TRUE” .
One the main reasons the story interests me is not just the hyprocrisy but Vitter’s relationship with the Louisiana Family Forum, a very powerful state lobbying organization that promotes a “family values” religious agenda. In fact, the President of the LFF, Gene Mills, absolved Vitter of his alleged sins during the 2007 scandal, claiming the Senator had repented and “sought forgiveness, reconciliation and counseling”. Shortly after that, Vitter earmarked $100,000 in a federal spending bill to the LFF but that earmark eventually failed to make it through.
The truth is, Senator Vitter has not reconciled anything because he never really admitted to anything specifc. My goal was to find out exactly what Mr. Vitter was alluding to when he said he had committed serious sins in his 2007 press conference.
Is is illegal wiretapping?
While the hiring of investigative firms and spying on political adversaries is nothing new, the arrest of the person gathering the information is new, especially considering the facts reported in this case.
Normand is said to use a table in the middle of the restaurant to meet with his buddies daily, speaking loudly, inviting anybody within earshot to listen in.
Newell Normand has a coffee klatch in that place every morning. Every morning. Everybody in Jefferson Parish knows that’s where you can find him. And everybody in Jefferson Parish knows everything that’s on his mind can be discovered every morning there. Because he plops down at the center table with his pals and discusses it.
If that is true, what was the expectation of the breakfast club that their conversations would be private?
The group sitting at the table included at least two public officials, Sheriff Normand and Senator Danny Martiny.
As PINAC readers already know, documenting and filming in public has been found by courts across the country to be Constitutionally protected activity. The undisputed fact that there was at least two public officials seated at the table, further calls into question any expectation of privacy this group may have thought they had at the center table in a coffee shop.
“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.
While Louisiana’s wiretapping law does not allow a third party to secretly record a conversation unless that person is a party to the conversation, the person being recorded must have a reasonable expectation of privacy for the law to apply, which it doesn’t appear the group had in a bustling coffee shop at a table surrounded by other patrons.
Though Louisiana’s Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has yet to weigh in on this issue, other appellate courts around the country have.
A citizen’s right to film government officials, including law enforcement officers, in the discharge of their duties in a public space is a basic, vital, and well-established liberty safeguarded by the First Amendment.
As to the First Amendment claim under Section 1983, we agree with the Smiths that they had a First Amendment right, subject to reasonable time, manner and place restrictions, to photograph or videotape police conduct. The First Amendment protects the right to gather information about what public officials do on public property, and specifically, a right to record matters of public interest.
Maybe Normand and attorney Cummings finally did their research regarding Louisiana’s wiretapping laws because the promise to charge Frenzel with interception of communication is now more than a week old and though the contents of Frenzel’s phone and his car have been gathered and inspected by Normand and his department, there have been no new charges filed, even though he stated the following after the arrest.
“You can’t record the conversation unless you’re a party to the conversation,” Normand said. “If I’m on a stage talking to the public on a microphone, he can tape my conversation. But when there’s a reasonable expectation of privacy, you can’t tape somebody’s conversation
Vitter and Edwards have since moved on to other political mud slinging, involving the release of non-violent drug offenders that Vitter calls “thugs” in a new controversial add that has diverted any attention from the coffee shop incident.
But the arrest seems to have backfired on Vitter because Sheriff Normand, a republican who was just reelected by landslide to his third term, recently said the republican candidate would make the “worst governor in Louisiana history.”
But there will likely be no other comment from either side about the spy scandal at least until after the election in November. And Frenzel is scheduled for court in January on his criminal mischief charge, which includes a variety of offenses for conviction, but there is no mention of recording others in public.
However, the sheriff says the charge stems from him running through backyards in his getaway attempt after he was discovered recording Normand and his cronies.
Regardless of the political intentions behind Frenzel’s attempts to record, the fact that they took such offense to his actions when they were seated in the middle of crowded coffeeshop speaking loudly is a reminder that the government’s unofficial motto, If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, does not seem to apply to them.
PINAC publisher Carlos Miller contributed to this report