A Prudent Approach to Municipal Investigations

Article excerpt

PROFESSIONAL INVESTIGATORS often have a background in criminal investigation. They have been trained to search for a criminal and to answer variations on the basic question, "Who struck John?" Yet in the investigation of municipal impropriety, villains are often not so villainous, and the questions that must be asked are often more complicated.

Municipal investigations usually begin with an allegation made by a complainant. Before beginning a full-blown investigation, the municipal investigator should examine the initial statement closely with an eye toward the many motives someone may have for bringing charges.

To ensure the veracity of a complaint, an investigator should request an affidavit from the accuser. Often an individual will not have all the facts, or his or her complaints will be rooted in vengeance. The complainant may not understand the law. A municipal investigator must be mindful of all of these factors.

Once a municipal investigation begins, it must be kept at a low profile. The prudent investigator should understand the workings of a municipality before beginning. For example, in a small town, where news travels fast, a discreet background check on both the complainant and the subject of the complaint is wise. A second interview with the complainant might help clarify and encapsulate the story. Lastly, a review of the history or background of any municipal board or agency involved in the case will provide a broader perspective on the complaint.

Often investigations come to a close without revealing criminal activity. Instead, the investigation may find that a particular process or activity must be modified to eliminate the appearance of impropriety. Not all municipal investigations are resolved by removing someone from office. A municipal investigator must keep this in mind as he or she pursues information and evidence.

In some cases, however, the evidence proves that a crime has been committed. If the agency monitoring local government ethics has no authority to prosecute, a referral of all the facts to the district attorney is required.

The investigation. After a complaint is received, the investigator must interview the complainant. The investigator must gather all the facts and try to verify every statement made. Gathering supportive documents is one good method of verifying statements. (An example of a supportive document is the minutes of the town's board of trustees meeting.)

The next step is to interview all relevant witnesses. Investigators should keep track of all their trips, interviews, and notes involving witnesses. In a complex case involving many witnesses, a picture is worth a thousand words. The investigator should prepare a flowchart; it can be useful when explaining the case to a supervisor. It also helps to ensure a better understanding of the facts in the investigator's mind.

To uncover information about a person's background, other investigative bureaus or departments can be helpful. The investigator must first determine what investigative body would be the most useful--and the most discreet.

Once contact has been made with pertinent people and agencies and all the information has been gathered, the case's details should be analyzed. The investigator should write a report on the facts for supervisory review. The direction of any municipal investigation must be determined by consultation with a supervising attorney familiar with the intricacies of municipal law.

Case studies. In a suburban town of more than 20,000 people, a tax assessor came under review. The assessor wore four hats. He was a realtor, developer, contractor, and the assessor for the town. His four occupations raised the potential for a conflict of interest.

It was alleged that the assessor was raising taxes unfairly. The complainant reported that one man's property, assessed at $294,000, was assessed the previous year at $26,000. The assessor apparently wanted to buy the property, tear down the existing house, and build a development of modular homes. …