IRE 1993 Conference
New York City
From: Lou Rose
St Louis Post-Dispatch
 
 

Some Truths About Investigative Reporting


1) You Already Have The Most Sophisticated Computer Ever Devised.

Your mind -- despite its flaws -- is the most versatile imaginative and productive computer that exists. Use it and it will reward you time and again. Let your mind tell other computers what to do.

2) You Can Clone or Recreate From Records Someone You've Never Met.

You ought to be able to recreate such a person right down to his or her physical appearance, marital, employment, income and financial status, property holdings and lifestyle, as well scores of personal details. You can do it by using your mind and scouring a myriad of public and other records awaiting your inspection. All you need is effort, imagination and. maybe a little luck. More later on how to do this.

3) Companies, Both Large and Small, Are Just Like People.

Do you want to clone or recreate a firm or business? You can succeed by thinking of the company as an individual and going after the kinds of corporate records that correspond to those a person creates. Businesses, like people, generate a birth certificate, namely articles of incorporation. They grow up getting report cards; they acquire property, they marry (merge), have offspring (subsidiaries), divorce, expand, get zoning variances, borrow money, sue and get sued, declare bankruptcy and change names and write angry letters to the editor. Often they die -- with articles of dissolution serving as their death certificate.

4) From Whence Comes Our Knowledge.

We learn from people, from our own observations and from documents or records. Each of these three types of sources can be invaluable. Most good investigative stories will combine all three. But let us focus for a moment on record sources, involving documents or some physical entity that contains information we may need. Hundreds of thousands of records are being generated daily. As used here, the term record also applies to photographs, tape recordings, video recordings, or a combination of all these. We ought to view records as a broad category, touching on both private and official matters. Such records are everywhere about us. The list is endless. Think on both a grand and mundane scale. Consider just a few that we may encounter daily -- bills, receipts checks, ticket stubs business cards. matchbooks, parking tickets, telephone numbers and other bits of information jotted down on napkins and scraps of paper, memo and letters.

5) Not All Records Are Equal.

When we write a story, we must be ready to defend it word by word. One or two seemingly minor mistakes --such as a wrong first name or initial -- may undermine our credibility. We may fill a file drawer with records accumulated during an investigation. But it is always good to keep in mind that we must give priority to getting those records or sources that are critical to documenting and proving our investigative findings.

6) When it Comes to Records, Greed Can Be A Virtue.

Many records by law must be made available to us. Others may be in a gray area, and may or may not be open to public inspection. Still others that we consider critical to an investigation we have under way may be denied to us by law, custom or the courts. That means we can't get them, unless we want them bad enough. Be greedy -- get everything that might be of use to you, regardless of who says you can't. How do you do it? Consult your best ally --your own intellect.

7) Blessed Are The Bureaucrats And Their Duplicate & Triplicate Copies.

Instead of belittling them, we owe the bureaucrats a vote of thanks for making it possible to do our job when some officeholder destroys his records or refuses us .access to them. Some other official or agency may have the copies we need. We should make it our business to know how many copies of any document exit, who has custody of them, where they're stored and whether they might be on microfilm or microfiche, unbeknownst to the office or person we are investigating.

8) Know the Process; It May Be Boring, But It Will Set You Free.

We ought to know in detail how a government agency or an institution -- whether it be a bank, police department, school district, prosecutor, or a city treasurer's office -- handles its transactions and the records it keeps. Too often reporters don't know how to trace and decipher real estate transactions, penetrate straw-party guises or pick apart a governmental budget dollar by dollar, and check by check. They may be unaware of the specific steps involved in property assessments. We all would do well to make it a top priority to understand --step by step -- each detail in the governmental or corporate process confronting us. When we do, we will be able to look up such records on our own, or at least know they exist and who might be able to help get to them.

9) Want to Solve a Problem? Think of The Incomparable Photo Cube.

When doing an investigative project, chances are that a whole series of problems will pop up. Maybe you have to figure out someone 5 motivation. Or you may need to unravel how some scheme was pulled off, and who was involved. Or, your project may hinge on coming up with a way to access records that seem impossible to get.

Your mind is the key. Let's say the first puzzle you want to answer is how an official profited from a transaction you consider suspect. As you try to attack the puzzle, imagine that you are holding a six-sided photo cube. As you look at one face of the cube, write down one theory that would explain how the official made money on the deal. Then mentally turn the cube to another face and jot down another explanation. Keep doing that until you have exhausted every theory you can up with, regardless of how idiotic any of them might seem. Later, as you gather more information, you evaluate each theory. So too, you can use the photo-cube approach in trying to figure out any number of unknowns --such as why something was done, who knows about it and can help you, how you can get that person's help, and other issues.

Puzzle-solving -- despite all the annoyance it may involve -- is one of the true joys of investigative reporting. I once wrote a series of stories telling how a city supply commissioner had intervened to funnel contracts for the purchase of heavy equipment to a supplier who was a close friend. 1 found that the supplier had taken the commissioner on free trips to Europe and throughout the United States.

After the disclosure, a reader urged my newspaper to look into another contract won by the same friend of the supply commissioner. This contract involved providing the city with hundreds of lighted barriers used to warn motorists of potholes and other street hazards. On the surface, everything appeared okay. The friend's company was the low bidder and his bid was the only one to meet all of the specs for the barriers. Several bids from other companies had been thrown out for failing to meet the standards in the specs.

The question remained. If the caller's allegations were right, how was it done? Using the photo-cube approach, there was only one plausible explanation left: The barriers supplied by the commissioner's friend weren't the same as what the friend listed in his bid.

A tour of city streets confirmed that the barriers were cheaper models than called for in the specs and should have been disqualified. shortly after the disclosure, the supply commissioner was ousted from his office.

10) The World Is Flat And Is Made Up Of City Blocks. Thanks Be.

Don't be deceived by the propagandists. The earth isn't shaped like a soccer ball. In researching property records, we should think of the earth as a huge flat map laid out on some table. Of course, it depicts the location and boundaries of continents, the oceans, wildernesses, nations and territories. But don't lose sight of the more important picture.

If you are smart, you will consider the world not only to be flat, but also divided into city blocks -- each block drawn to scale and comprised of specific parcels of land whose history and list of owners we usually can trace back to the beginning of time --or to at least to about 100 years ago. Buildings may come and go, but the land beneath them remains. With a little effort, we can reconstruct the changing ownership during any given time period of a single parcel or entire neighborhoods, even sweeping expanses of a city. We can track down property holdings and transactions involving an individual, a family, government or a corporation. The records will disclose who they had dealings with, mortgages they took out and who lent them the money. The records also may tip us off to the identify of people or firms used as ''straw parties''-- thereby possibly giving us leads to other transactions we knew nothing about.

Real estate records often are gold mines of information you normally wouldn't expect to find there. They list all kinds of liens, including state and federal tax liens. Notations about marriages, divorces, deaths, wills and other probate matters, the makeup and status of limited partnerships, changes of name, and other pieces of knowledge find their way into real estate records.

11) No Magical List Can Steer You To The Records You Need.

Everybody loves lists. Police, private detectives and investigative reporters often use lists that tell them what kinds of records and documents they might to be looking at. Such lists can prove valuable. But they are not without risks and can be counterproductive. The risk is in' relying on them too much. You can easily be sidetracked, if you succumb to the temptation of following down the line, starting with the first item or action suggested. This ignores a simple truth. Each item listed doesn't have the same value. You have to decide which steps are more important to pursue than others in your particular case. One step alone may be the crucial one and outweigh everything else on the list.

12) You Can Create Your Own List From Things people Do Routinely.

We are lucky if we know even a small percentage of records that exist relating to people, companies, organizations and governmental agencies. But if we use our reasoning and life experiences, we can often conclude that certain types of records must exist -- even if we don't know what they are called.

We may not know, for example, the name of the form used in deleting a deceased husband's name from property he owned jointly with his wife. But our intellect tells us such a record must exist and we can locate it by describing its function to those who handle such records.

In creating your own list of records you want to check, you can tailor it to focus on specific activities of a person or firm that you are investigating. Does he sell insurance? If so, he would be licensed by the state, with records showing what brokers or underwriters he has represented or now represents and whether he has been subject to disciplinary action.


From birth to death and even beyond, the things we do often leave a paper trail that others can follow. Consider just a few foot prints or tire marks our activities generate: 

WE DRIVE --Anyone can check our drivers 5 license application, our driving record and any offenses, the vehicles we own including the license plate numbers, the vehicle identification number (VIN), whether we took a loan out to buy the car and the name of the lender. Sometimes we have accidents that lead to lawsuits on file at the county courthouse, or injury or insurance claims.

WE BUY THINGS -- In so doing, we leave a trail of receipts, checks, credit card transactions, credit ratings, loan records and liens, and sometimes law suits. To protect themselves, many major department stores, lenders and other extending credit use the Uniform Commercial Code to record with the state or county various loans or installment purchases made by consumers or firms. For a fee, you can obtain a copy of UCC filings that appear under the name of a person or company who bought something on credit.

The buyer or borrower might not realize his transaction is part of a public record. You might find out that he put up as security assets that you didn't know he had, such as real estate, securities, equipment, accounts receivable or other items of value, including jewelry.

Very few details of our finances remain secret. Personal privacy is becoming increasingly extinct as our society creates huge computer networks that contain information about us that we are unaware they have.

Getting a person's credit report, for example, is easier than many people realize. Jeffrey Rothfeder, author of ''Privacy for Sale,'' told just how easy it is in an article syndicated by the New York Times and published in the Post-Dispatch and other papers. Rothfeder said he was able to get the credit report on former Vice President Dan Quayle.

''All I had to do,'' wrote Rothfeder, ''was pay an information company $50, plug in my computer, type in the former vice president's name and out poured the private details of his finances. (He shops at Sears a lot.) Another data seller -- there are dozens --sold me Dan Rather's credit transactions from a month last spring, when he spent ten times more on clothing than on dining out. This seller warmed to me quickly. As a bonus I was sent Vanna White's home phone number for free," Rothfeder confided.

Other firms are equally anxious to provide such information -- at a price, of course.

WE VOTE -- Registrars have us list or present and former addresses, often recording our date of birth, Social Security number, and sometimes our mother's maiden name. In most places, voter registration cards are public records. They tell what elections we voted in, and may include a forwarding address for an absentee voter or a resident who has moved to a new jurisdiction.

WE OWN PROPERTY -- See earlier comments.

WE MARRY -- A marriage license is recorded, along with the application that shows the couple's names and address, the name and address of the parents or guardians if one of the applicants is underage, the church or place where the wedding took place, and who officiated over the wedding. These records usually are on file at the city or county level in the recorder of deeds' office or the marriage license bureau. But alas, the course of true love sometimes crashes and:

WE DIVORCE -- A divorce is a lawsuit, often producing claims and counterclaims, allegations, and lengthy series of questions and responses relating to income, assets and work history. The files also may include any protective orders, as well as court rulings on custody, support payments and other issues in the divorce case.

There are numerous other things we do that add to the paper trail we generate: We work. We go to school. We play. We join groups. We read. We pay bills. We break the law. We pay taxes. We have children. We write letters.

Or we write memos such as this.

Copyright 1993 by Louis J. Rose
Material includes excerpts from the author's book:
"How To Investigate Your Friends and Enemies''
Published by:
Albion Press
582 Stratford Avenue
St. Louis, Mo., 63130