Independent journalist Jason Brad Berry has broken big stories before, but his latest might change the course of the Louisiana gubernatorial race.
Jason Brad Berry showed up to our 1 PM Friday lunch interview sketched out. He was worried his car had been bugged, that he was being watched. He had good reason. Over the past two weeks, Berry's blog, American Zombie, has reported that Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter had in fact often visited prostitutes in New Orleans (a rumor Vitter had long denied), and made new accusations that the conservative Vitter had fostered a love child with New Orleans escort Wendy Ellis. In a series of interviews filmed by Berry, Ellis claims Vitter demanded she abort the child, which she eventually gave up for adoption.
Significantly, Berry dropped all this on the cusp of Louisiana's gubernatorial elections, in which Vitter is competing with Democrat John Bel Edwards to succeed GOP presidential candidate and American punchline Bobby Jindal. (Edwards got the most votes in Saturday's open primary and will face Vitter, the second-place finisher, in a general election on November 21.)
"And now there is a fucking silver Ford Focus driving up and down my fucking street," Berry told me, sitting down outside the coffee shop, looking around. "Up and down, up and down for like the last two days."
"Someone's spying on you?" I asked.
"My street isn't a through street, so no one drives down it but my neighbors," he replied. "Last night I was out on my patio and the fucker stopped outside of my house. I was standing in my front yard, we made eye contact."
By the end of our hour-long interview, the story had taken another turn, when Berry received a phone call informing him that Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Norm and and others had chased down and apprehended a man named Robert Frenzel after he was spotted surreptitiously recording the sheriff's regular morning coffee meeting with a state senator, a prominent lawyer, and a private investigator. "The guy they caught was driving a silver Ford Focus," Berry told me after hanging up his phone. "He had a bunch of surveillance equipment in his front seat, and a dossier of files... labeled 'Jason Brad Berry.'"
Several hours later, another local blogger, Lamar White, corroborated the story and reported that the spy worked for J.W. Bearden Investigative Agency, to which David Vitter's gubernatorial campaign had paid roughly $135,000 this year.
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This is far from the first major story to originate from Berry and his blog. Just after Katrina, it was Berry, via American Zombie ,who lit the news fuse that led to the corruption trial of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, now serving ten years in federal prison. Berry followed that up with intensely researched and sourced reporting on the many travesties related to the divvying up of BP's disaster settlements. And while many have uttered the phrase "Vitter's political career is over," Berry, with his new reporting, has the potential make that Louisiana dream into reality.
American Zombie is a valuable resource in a city whose flagship newspaper, the Times-Picayune, recently cut another 37 staffers. Berry's day job as a freelance videographer allows him a loose enough schedule that he can spend years on his important, sometimes Earth-moving stories. As such, the local papers love Berry, or at least love aggregating his hard work . But Berry claims no interest in turning his success into a full-time gig for any outlet."I don't trust any of the newspapers in this city," he said. "That doesn't mean I don't trust the reporters. We have incredible reporters in this city, but I don't trust the media entities they work for. I've been doing this for ten years and... What I have seen time and again is money and influence buying editorial control."
"I think what I do is an invaluable resource to this community mostly because I answer to no one," he added.
Berry earned a journalism degree—and found his calling—at the University of Mississippi. "In college I wrote my first story on a family in Tunica County, Mississippi, who was being evicted off of a farm, and they had lived in a shack with no water or electricity," Berry recalled. "These people let me into their lives, they showed me their struggles, and I was immediately hooked on telling stories, on journalism."
In 2003, Berry partnered with Dr. Vince Morelli to film a documentary on New Orleans public school system called Left Behind. Long before I first met Berry, I'd recommended Left Behind to many of my teacher friends as the best document of the freakishly obscene corruption that has plagued almost every version of New Orleans's Public School Board. "The thesis was that there was enough money in New Orleans school system, but that people were just stealing it," said Berry.
The movie, and the Nagin corruption scandal, made Berry's name, and put him on the receiving end of many juicy insider tips. "This new info on Vitter fell into my lap in 2010," explained Berry." I was approached by an opposition researcher—all the campaigns hire investigators to find dirt on their opponents. Every journalist talks to these people, not just me."
Though Berry has not yet published evidence beyond the interviews, the idea of Vitter having hypocritical dalliances is not unfamiliar to his constituents. In 2007, escort Wendy Ellis had dished on Vitter to Hustler—though that published interview made no mention of the kid. Vitter denied most of it in any case, admitting only to a vague "very serious sin." Still, Berry kept following leads, but found little of real interest. "A few months ago, I was ready to say there's nothing here, it's all crap," he admits. "There was this mysterious baby mama prostitute out there though, and I was eventually told it actually was Wendy Ellis, the original prostitute who came forth."
The opposition researcher Berry spoke with put him through to Ellis, who he interviewed in Texas, where she was being treated for a terminal case of lupus. (Her deteriorating medical condition, she claims, is one reason she is telling her story now.) Ellis revealed to Berry a supposed years-long monogamous relationship with Vitter, culminating in a child. "I believed her story," said Berry, who added that for now he must keep hidden some of the reasons why he believes her. "She says she didn't talk about the baby to Hustler because she didn't want to endanger the child in any way."
Berry is still putting some of the pieces together. Days after his new series debuted, New Orleans television station WDSU and other local media outlets were fed conflicting court documents, including a 2001 handwritten plea from Ellis to a judge who'd just sentenced her to ten years for violating probation. "Sir, yes I [worked in a strip club] as I told you," read Ellis's letter, "but I never worked for an Escort Service." Some geographic details still haven't lined up yet, either.
"My opinion is that letter was selectively cherry-picked out of a large number of legal documents and handed to WDSU to offset my story," said Berry. "And WDSU didn't question that. They just ran it. I think that's how it happened, and I think there are documents in that same thick file that refute that letter itself. And I am getting that. I mean, I hope."
Berry's not doing this for the money; he claims to have made just over $300 in donations though his website since dropping this new bomb. He also claims no interest in influencing the election. "I don't care what it seems like to you or anyone else," Berry replied. "Because I know what it is to me. I just want the truth to come out."
Berry does admit a fondness for pointing out hypocrisy, such as Vitter's ties to right-wing moral crusaders like the Louisiana Family Forum. More pragmatically, he adds, "This [love-child] story [was] potential leverage [his opponents could] have over him. I know they do that with other politicians in this state. So it's important to me for sure, to expose whatever skeletons he's got in his closet; if he's gonna govern the state, let's get them the fuck out of the closet so they can't control him that way."
Berry promises more to come on Vitter as Louisianans wait to vote again on November 21. "I am garnering evidence that will prove the adoption. I am getting it. I can't get any info or records myself though; Wendy has to request that," he said. "That's what I've asked her to do. But it's a touch-and-go situation." With no editor breathing down his neck, Berry is in no hurry: "This is a fucking chess match," he has told the many reporters who've called him lately. "It's one guy with a blog and a camera and no funding, up against the most powerful lawyers in the state... and David Vitter's team of investigators who are apparently coming up and down my street every day... I hope it's them, and not some crazy motherfucker who wants to kill me."
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