Private eyes or “legal fees”? Has David Vitter broken state campaign finance laws?

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By Robert Mann

Is anyone suing Sen. David Vitter’s gubernatorial campaign? If so, I cannot find a record of it.

So, why has Vitter’s campaign spent $151,356 on “legal fees” since July 2014? What legal issues, beyond advice on campaign finance and ethics matters, might have arisen requiring the services of lawyers billing for as much 1,000 hours of legal work or consultation (assuming, for argument’s sake, an average billing of $150 per hour)?

It’s not that legal fees on Louisiana campaign finance reports are unusual. They’re not. A search of the Louisiana Ethics Administration Program’s Campaign Finance Portal yielded many such instances over the years, although it’s clear that the vast majority of Louisiana statewide and legislative campaigns do not pay for legal services.

But when they do, the charges are usually modest — $1,000 to $10,000. Some are higher. From 2007 to 2009, former state Sen. Walter Boasso, who ran for governor in 2007, reported spending $22,649 in legal fees. Former Gov. Mike Foster reported spending $37,090 in legal fees in 1999. From 2007 to 2011, Gov. Bobby Jindal reported spending $33,419 on legal fees.

However, other than late Agriculture Commissioner Bob Odom ($526,000) and late state Elections Commissioner Jerry Fowler ($171,000) – both who faced criminal charges at the end of their careers – no candidate for state office in Louisiana has spent more on “legal fees” than Vitter in the past 15 years. Even former St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed, who pled not guilty to federal corruption charges earlier this year, reported legal expenses of “only” $85,000.

Put another way, in the last 15 years, no Louisiana candidate not under criminal investigation has spent more on “legal” services than Vitter.

So, what’s going on? Why is Vitter spending so much on lawyers?

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The answer is, he’s probably not. Vitter apparently has spent vast sums of his contributors’ money on private investigators and may have falsely reported those expenses as “legal fees.”

Of the $151,356 Vitter has reported in “legal fees” during his run for governor, $135,869 has been paid to one firm – J.W. Bearden & Associates of Dallas, Tex. (Another $15,487 has gone to two Louisiana law firms.)

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J.W. Bearden & Associates was headed by James Bearden (he died in 2009), who described himself as specializing primarily in litigation, personal injury and family law. His business address was 1825 Market Center Blvd., Suite 610, Dallas, TX 75207.

Coincidentally, there is another business operating from that same suite and headed by a Wes Bearden. That’s the Bearden Investigative Agency, Inc., which (BIA) describes on its website as “a full service licensed private investigation agency headquartered in Dallas, Texas. BIA serves the legal, individual and corporate community by investigating sensitive and complex matters.” (The firm’s website claims it also has offices, or operations, in New Orleans.)

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According to the firm’s website, Wes Bearden, BIA’s CEO and chairman, “is an 20 year [sic] licensed private investigator. Wes maintains active membership and leadership in a number of private investigative associations throughout the United States. Mr. Bearden is also an active practicing attorney licensed in Texas and Louisiana with an emphasis civil litigation and cases involving in-depth fact investigation.”

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On its website, BIA boasts:

A few years ago, a national magazine referred to BIA as “the FBI of the private investigative industry. No other agency even comes close to the experience, resources, and client list of the Bearden firm.” In fact, we have represented thousands of attorneys across the nation, hundreds of corporations, numerous federal, state and local government entities, and thousands of individuals in solving each one’s unique problems. At least 27 books and 21 movies or television specials have been written about cases we have worked on.

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Until Friday, Oct. 23, no one had noticed or bothered to ask why Vitter’s campaign paid so much money in “legal fees” to a Dallas law firm, or whether it was, in fact, the firm’s associated private investigation agency that received these payments.

On that day, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office arrested an employee of J.W. Bearden & Associates, 30-year-old Robert Frenzel, on various charges. The charges sprang from Frenzel’s alleged surveillance of Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand and a group of friends that included Danny DeNoux, a private investigator; John Cummings, an attorney and apparent supporter of state Rep. John Bel Edwards’ gubernatorial campaign; and, state Sen. Danny Martiny, an attorney with the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.

As reported by the Baton Rouge Advocate,

The sheriff said he soon learned Frenzel works for J.W. Bearden & Associates, of Texas, which has received $135,000 this year from the Vitter campaign for “legal fees,” according to campaign finance reports. A message seeking comment from the firm was not returned Friday.

Normand said he telephoned a principal of the Bearden firm, who confirmed Frenzel’s employment.

Normand said he wasn’t able to say for certain that he was the target of Frenzel’s surveillance — “I have no idea, but I’m going to find out,” he said — but had no qualms suggesting Vitter was behind it.

“I’m absolutely ready to connect the dots” on that front, Normand said.

Late Friday night [Oct. 23] — several hours after being contacted for comment — Vitter’s gubernatorial campaign issued a statement saying that Frenzel “works for a firm that we hired to do research, all within the bounds of the law.”

The statement, attributed to Vitter campaign spokesman Luke Bolar, continued: “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.”

The bizarre spying caper has been amply covered by the Advocate, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and others. However, not as many questions have been asked about the curious nature of Vitter’s “legal fees,” supposedly paid to J.W. Bearden & Associates.

Since the Vitter’s campaign long ago stopped responding to, or even acknowledging, my phone calls and emails, I pose these questions in hopes that a Louisiana journalist to whom Vitter or his staff communicates might ask for some answers:

  1. Did Vitter’s campaign pay J.W. Bearden & Associates for work that was performed by another entity, Bearden Investigative Agency, Inc.? If so, was this a violation of the state’s campaign finance law?
  2. Does Frenzel work for J.W. Bearden & Associates or the Bearden Investigative Agency, Inc.?
  3. What was the nature of the “legal fees” paid to J.W. Bearden & Associates? Has the Vitter campaign been sued? Why would a candidate for governor of Louisiana hire a Dallas firm that specializes in litigation, personal injury and family law to advise it on “legal” matters? Does J.W. Bearden & Associates have expertise in Louisiana campaign finance law?
  4. Now that James Bearden is dead, does his law firm actually still exist?
  5. In addition to providing legal services, does J.W. Bearden & Associates provide private investigative services? If so, what is the difference between J.W. Bearden & Associates’ services and those services provided by BIA?
  6. Is Wes Bearden, or anyone else associated with BIA, also serving as an attorney with the J.W. Bearden & Associates law firm?
  7. Did you hire and pay the law firm and ask it to subcontract the investigative work to BIA? If so, did you do so in order to assure that no one could testify about his or her activities on your behalf because of the attorney-client privalege?
  8. Assuming that BIA charges about $150 per hour for its surveillance and investigative work, that would mean roughly 900 hours of work by BIA’s investigators. If, indeed, Vitter’s campaign was paying the Bearden Investigative Agency, Inc., for investigative work, who else has been the target of BIA’s investigations and why?
  9. Why would a gubernatorial campaign find it necessary to pay for $135,000 worth of investigative work?
  10. In particular, did Vitter’s campaign authorize BIA to investigate or conduct surveillance on other supporters of Vitter’s primary opponents?
  11. Did Vitter’s campaign authorize surveillance or investigation of any other Louisiana citizens, including journalists or prostitutes?
  12. Vitter’s campaign has presented Louisiana media organizations with research on one former prostitute. Was this research generated by J.W. Bearden & Associates or by BIA or some other firm?
  13. How many other prostitutes have been investigated at the behest of Vitter’s campaign and why?
  14. If Vitter falsely reported expenses for a private investigator as “legal fees,” is this a violation of the state’s campaign finance laws?

     

Clarification: In the original version of this post, I should have noted that the founder of J.W. Bearden & Associates, James Bearden, died in 2009. I have updated the post to clarify that while this firm is still apparently operating and accepting checks from Vitter’s campaign, the firm’s founder is dead. Also, Walter Reed has pled not guilty to federal charges. I regret the error.

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    8 Responses to Private eyes or “legal fees”? Has David Vitter broken state campaign finance laws?

    1. earthmother says:

      We asked ourselves that question when the PI story broke a week ago – first disguising investigative services as legal fees, making it difficult for an auditor to find, AND paying for such services from campaign funds….surely this is outside the bounds of campaign finance laws. Since this is a state campaign FEC rules do not apply – so your question, is this a violation of state campaign finance law – is THE question. And why are you the only one asking?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fredster says:

        Indeed earthmother, as the old saying goes: Inquiring minds want to know.”.

        Now imagine this: He’s having to pay for his p.i. work done at this time. Imagine if he’s elected governor and has the entire range of investigative folks and power, i.e. state police, at his beck and call.

        Like

        • earthmother says:

          Fredster, what a terrifying thought. With the full force of the state police intelligence unit (and they ARE pretty smart), GOHSEP, LA National Guard, etc., in the hands of a narcissistic, tyrannical despot, we could end up in gulags-in-the-swamp thanks to an LA-KGB. What a nightmare to contemplate, just at bedtime!

          Like

        • Bob in BR says:

          Sounds an awful lot like a recent governor we used to have. What was his name? Booby or Pyush or something like that. Think he lives somewhere up north.

          Like

    2. June Butler says:

      Lots of questions, with seemingly no answers forthcoming any time soon. I’m also curious about Louisiana campaign finance laws and whether Vitter went out of bounds. Still, the spying is so sleazy, even if it’s within the law.

      Like

    3. Robert Broussard says:

      Your Question no.7 is the crux of the matter. I think the Vitter campaign is trying to cloak its investigations of its “enemies,” (err, opposition) within the attorney-client privilege so that all of the Bearden firm’s records would (arguably) not be subject to discovery in a civil suit or possible disclosure to the ethics board or a criminal investigation. The privilege is a shield for legal advice given by the attorney to the client and the attorney’s thoughts on strategy. It belongs to the client, and only the client (Vitter’s campaign) can waive the privilege. The campaign could also assert that the work of BIA is within the scope of the attorney work-product doctrine. It would be very interesting to see who else besides Mr. Cummings has been the subject of BIA’s investigatory work. If the campaign would assert the privilege, I think it was waived by the affirmative statement explaining that the target of Frenzel’s activity was Cummings. Once waived for one aspect of the engagement, the privilege is waived for the entire engagement.

      Like

    4. OneStateWorker says:

      In an interview with Lamar White, published on his CenLamar blog, Jon Bell said:

      “They’ve (the Vitter campaign) had a tracker follow me around, and I’ve given the same speech to all sorts of audiences- white, black, conservative, liberal.”

      I wonder if the “tracker” was a paid PI rather than a volunteer or Vitter campaign worker? That would certainly run up the bill. And suggests that Vitter has so much money he doesn’t care about using it effectively for his campaign. Wonder if he would be equally careless with the state’s money?

      While it may not relate to this specific issue, this bible verse from one of my devotionals this morning made me think of Vitter, jindal, and other radical Conservatives: “…There is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” John 8:44

      Liked by 2 people

    5. Pingback: So have you heard the one about the Senator and the prostitute(s)? | The Widdershins

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