Even if you’re not a fan of Fox’s successful prime time drama, Empire, you’re likely aware of the name Jussie Smollett by now. Smollett has come under fire in the media and on the internet for his allegedly false account of a racially-motivated attack against him in January, where he alleged two men attempted to strangle him and pour bleach on him. When the story first broke, it was shaping up to be a watershed moment in conversations about how the current administration is affecting race-relations throughout the country. After law enforcement conducted an investigation into his version of events, they’ve released statements that Smollett may have hired the men responsible to help him stage the attack. The case has created divisive new conversations about the United States’ current political climate, but is also prompting career investigators to highlight the importance of thorough and diligent fact-finding in the early stages of any investigation—especially within corporations.
Conducting an investigation with unimpeachable integrity is very similar to building a structure ready to withstand natural disasters. Laying a firm groundwork from the moment of the intake narrative will set an impregnable foundation allowing investigators and support staff to develop strong leads. Investigators must be prepared to ask every question—albeit inane or delicate—in order to ensure they are getting all of the existing, relevant information on the case. This is a process called fact-finding, in which a victim or witness’s statement is documented and entered into record, thereby allowing investigators to thoroughly vet every aspect of their statement. Were they in fact present when the incident took place? Can they accurately describe the alleged perpetrator? Is their story consistent across multiple iterations?
As is the case with any investigation, operatives are racing against the clock. With time, witnesses’ memories fade and witnesses themselves disappear, having relocated or simply left town. As time goes by, evidence is eroded, eventually disappearing, eliminating the leads they might have developed. This is why thorough fact-finding is so important, because investigators who are operating off false or inaccurate leads can lose days or weeks on a case as they chase a lead that will eventually come to no end. While investigators chase those dead leads, the truth about what actually occurred dissolves into obscurity.
Investigators in the Smollett case were able to vet his account of events and discover there may be more to the story than meets the eye. The case was not an isolated incident of allegedly false accusations having major consequences for the parties involved. Regardless of why an individual would make false accusations—whether it was with malice or simply a mistake—these circumstances could occur in many areas of life that could be devastating to both individuals and corporations.
Allegations of misconduct in the workplace immediately come to mind. Whether it’s allegations of theft or sexual harassment, these are the kinds of cases where it’s crucial to have the intake narrative well-documented, with detailed first accounts from all principles on the who, where, when, how, and why in any series of events. Cases regarding misconduct in the workplace have a higher chance of being litigated following the completion of any investigation, usually through civil and wrongful termination lawsuits.
A thorough and diligent private investigator is an invaluable asset to both sides of any investigation, as they are an independent third party and do not have a stake in the outcome of the investigation. Any fact-finding performed by an objective third party stands up to a much higher degree of scrutiny by the opposition. Investigators who are directly employed by any parties in either side have a lot to lose if their employer faces ruin following a lawsuit.
Which brings us to another issue in handling the fact-finding internally. Internal investigators can have a variety of qualifications depending on the corporation’s procedure. It’s true some businesses have licensed investigators on retainer to assist in regular operations, like a business who hires a private investigator to run a background check on a candidate for an upper management position. However, depending on the size of the company, the investigating party in some corporate crises is just the head of Human Resources—who might then be supervising other subordinates to do the legwork. Human Resource managers are invaluable employees who keep businesses running like clockwork, but this does not necessarily qualify them to conduct an investigation in every possible scenario, such as investigations requiring surveillance, undercover work, or properly documenting any evidence that might be recovered. This kind of oversight can have disastrous consequences in the later stages of an investigation, or even in a court of law. The opposition’s case is strengthened when there is evidence an internal investigator has not done their due-diligence.
Corporations of all sizes, trades, and levels of notoriety experience crises throughout their history. When disaster strikes and the stakes are high, it’s important to retain the services of a qualified, licensed, private investigator to begin an investigation. It’s not uncommon for a private investigator to be hired on after internal investigators have already made an attempt. It’s best to start strong, with due-diligent service from a seasoned external investigator to lay an impenetrable foundation for a thorough investigation.
The growing awareness of sexual abuse in the media has the public on high alert in all walks of life—a steady stream of investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct within religious communities, sport teams and franchises, civil service, and the workplace to name a few. It seems like every week the news cycle is dominated by another story in which a religious leader is denounced following allegations of sexual abuse against minor members of congregation. Investigations into United States Olympic teams have the parents of minor athletes with their ears to the ground, as the horror of Larry Nassar’s crimes continue to shake out in civil court. Leaders within these communities are educating themselves on how the power structure of these institutions leaves minors vulnerable and in many cases are depending on the services of independent private investigators to conduct unbiased, thorough investigations.
In cases where there are allegations of abuse, there is an immediate division between the survivor and the alleged predator. Many of the parties involved will immediately fall on one side or the other. Employers, colleagues, and public relations representatives in the alleged abuser’s life will begin a rash of character defenses, claiming that there’s no way an individual as friendly/respected/admired as them could be capable of such disgusting actions. Parents and loved ones in the survivor’s life will rally in support as they attempt to take on not just their abuser, but potentially an entire institution as well. All of the parties directly involved have a stake in the outcome of the investigation. Institutions that are suspicious of predatory behavior in their ranks often prefer to handle the investigation in-house, using their own investigators in the form of management, attorneys, or employees in another supervisory capacity to do the fact-finding. Not only can the qualifications of these individuals range across a spectrum of investigative prowess, but because they are employed by the employer of the abuser, they likely will have some sort of bias as an investigator. This is why it’s so important to hire an independent, third party private investigator from the onset of any allegations of abuse. Like any unimpeachable structure, the integrity starts at the foundation, with thorough fact-finding by an experienced, qualified investigator. Ethically, a private investigator’s only loyalty is to the truth, and without any stake in the outcome of an investigation, their findings can withstand a higher level of scrutiny than an investigator employed by the abuser’s corporation or institution.
The most qualified private investigators for sexual abuse investigations have a wide array of experiences in multiple areas of criminal justice. Unlike the resumes of corporation and institutional employees, they will have likely majored in an area of criminal justice, have worked law enforcement, have been retained by either the prosecution or defense to assist in a case, and have an intimate knowledge of criminal procedures and investigative methods. Independent private investigators have to be able to work multiple angles in an abuse investigation, vetting every statement by survivors and witnesses, as well as doing thorough fact-finding on the alleged abuser in the form of an extensive background check, with special focus on their work history and criminal record. This kind of comprehensive groundwork lays a strong foundation for any litigation that might take place following the solution of the investigation. And because the private investigator is an objective third-party, the case will have integrity in a court of law.
Another specialty of a seasoned private investigator is surveillance and undercover operations. An investigator who is able to move through a crowd completely unnoticed, melting into the background while they keep an eye on the subject. Sometimes it’s just a matter of looking like you belong, and surveilling the subject from a short distance, or keeping a digital eye on the subject in the form of a camera or tracking device. Regardless, subjects behave most naturally when they do not know they are being watched. Hiding in plain sight, private investigators are able to document an abuser’s movements, correspondence, associates, and schedule to establish means and opportunity with regard to the allegations. Private investigators specializing in undercover operations have an advantage when interviewing witnesses and subjects, building a rapport that allows them to open up to the investigator. This form of subterfuge is often crucial in abuse investigations, particularly if the allegations have not yet become public knowledge. This time is valuable to an undercover operative, because when there are abuse allegations in an institution, there is often a circumventing culture of silence within it. Employees and associates are instructed not to speak to press or law enforcement regarding the allegations, there has not been need for any sort of legal gag order, and these potential witnesses will have their guard down. Private investigators and their field investigators can garner credible leads, leading to a more comprehensive, thorough investigation.
There have been many institutions, particularly in the Catholic faith, that have been accused of what has been characterized as a “cup and ball” routine in which supervisory entities will transfer employees or members of clergy accused of sexual abuse to remote branches of their network, often in different jurisdictions, to prevent law enforcement and investigators from doing their due-diligence. Private investigators are given an autonomy that is free from bureaucratic or jurisdictional chains. They can follow leads to track down multiple witnesses and can track an abuser’s movements—all across state lines.
Regardless of an alleged abuser’s reputation or status, allegations of abuse must always be handled with due-diligence and a sense of urgency. Corporations and institutions have it only in their own interest to eliminate potential predators in their ranks. The cost to retain a private investigator to conduct a thorough, objective investigation is a small fraction of the potential cost to these entities in the form of lawsuits that result from an investigation, usually on the part of survivors who were vindicated in their accounts of trauma and betrayal on behalf of mentors and leaders in their lives. Retaining the services of a qualified private investigator can go a long way to bringing predators to justice and preventing potential ruin of institutions that otherwise provide a great service for individuals in communities across America.
Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International. For more information, please visit our website.