Private Eyes Share Some Tips: Two Top Private Investigators Address an Overflow Session at the Annual Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference

Article excerpt

Investigative reporters cannot afford the luxury of presuming someone innocent until proven guilty, says two top private detectives.

"You have to think in terms of fraud. You've got to think the guy is guilty before you walk in," private investigator Michael Kessler told an overflow session at the recent Investigative Reporters and Editors annual conference in St. Louis.

As investigative reporters it's hard. We're supposed to keep a straight mind frame. But if you walk in with the assumption that nothing is wrong, you're not going to find anything," Kessler added.

Kessler is a New York City-based private detective who has assisted on numerous network television news investigations. He and another renowned private detective, William Dear of Dallas, traded their investigative tips during a session entitled, "How the gumshoes do it."

As it turns out, they do it the same way investigative reporters do it: Poring through public records, paying attention to the tiny details and constantly asking the question, "What's wrong with this picture?"

Even without subpoena power and the special access afforded law enforcement, reporters are in a very good position, said Dear.

"You know we are not police officers. We are investigative reporters. But you know what? We are luckier than police officers," Dear said.

To get much of their information, Dear noted, police must go through channels, get court permission, wait for clearances.

None of that hobbles the determined investigative reporter, said Dear, who is probably best know for cracking the so-called Dungeon and Dragons case involving the disappearance of boy genius James Dallas Egbert III.

And far from having to peek over hotel transoms, Dear and Kessler said much of their detective work involves records that should be familiar to any reporter.

As simple a thing as pulling public records can break a case," Kessler said.

In fact, a public records search should be a reporter's first step in any investigation, he said.

Kessler, for example, said he was able to document a $1 million ghost employee scandal in New York almost entirely by checking the most prosaic of records, such as parking tickets.

"We know someone getting a parking ticket in California could not be working in New York the same day," he said. …