It was an undeniably colorful story, one destined to go down in Louisiana political lore: Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand and some pals chasing private eye Robert Frenzel through Old Metairie in broad daylight after they caught Frenzel surreptitiously recording a conversation they were having in a coffee shop. Frenzel was working at the behest of U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who is running for governor, and the group he was recording — for whatever reason — included Normand, state Sen. Danny Martiny, retired New Orleans Police Department investigator-turned-private eye Danny DeNoux and lawyer John Cummings. When Frenzel ran onto private property, Normand called in his deputies, who found Frenzel cowering behind an air-conditioning unit in the backyard of a nearby residence. He was arrested for the misdemeanor offense of criminal mischief — not for "spying" on Normand or anyone else.
It's hard not to laugh at the image of "Big Chief vs. Spy Boy," but there's a much more serious issue here — a candidate for governor furtively taping his perceived enemies. Vitter's runoff opponent, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, called it "Nixon-ian." While the "–gate" suffix has been overused in modern politics, it fits here as much as anywhere. "Spygate" has landed where it belongs: in Vitter's lap.
Unlike Vitter's past "very serious sin" involving prostitutes, this controversy goes far beyond Vitter and his family. This affects all Louisianans who believe in fair play, privacy and curbing government overreach.
There's a much more serious issue here — a candidate for the state's highest office surreptitiously taping those he perceives as his enemies.
This is not a liberal-conservative issue. If anything, conservatives should be howling at this overreach by a high-ranking government official. It speaks to the outrageousness of this stunt that so few have defended Vitter — and it speaks even more to Vitter's character that so few were surprised. (Days after he was eliminated from the governor's race, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne — another Republican — still had his campaign website up with a large picture of Vitter behind the words "SENATOR LIAR.")
Team Vitter has tried to spin this as standard opposition research or "tracking." It's not. Tracking, which is performed by politicians of all parties, involves the public recording of one's opponent. In this case, Vitter's opponent wasn't around. Cummings, a well-heeled lawyer, was Frenzel's admitted target. In addition, professional trackers know their legal ground and stand it — or leave politely, as an Edwards tracker did last week when confronted at a Vitter event in Lafayette. Professionals don't go flying out the door, running down the street and trespassing on private property.
In Metairie, Vitter's PI surreptitiously taped an opponent's donor and one of the state's most popular sheriffs. Worse, Vitter has no compunction about his PI gathering intelligence on — and attempting to intimidate — a journalist whom the senator perceives as an enemy. Inside Frenzel's rental car, deputies found printouts about Jason Brad Berry, the investigative blogger who recently reported on Vitter's prostitution scandal. Berry also identified Frenzel's car as one that had cruised past his home on several nights, worrying him and his family.
A politician hiring someone to secretly shadow and record — if not intimidate — private citizens is scary enough. The prospect of such a man being in charge of the State Police is, as Edwards said, Nixonian. It should scare us all.