Published December 23, 2015
ALBANY, N.Y. -- A questionable military service record. An immigrant housekeeper without a visa. A criminal charge from long ago. Sexual indiscretions.
Such private issues thought long buried are the currency of the secretive and growing world where campaigns hire private investigators. PIs dig up dirt on opponents and, increasingly, the candidates who've hired them.
"Were they really in the military? Did they actually serve in combat? Well, maybe not," said Randy Torgerson, a PI and president of the United States Association of Professional Investigators based in Montana. "Some of the biggest things, as people move up the ladder, are sexual issues ... and then the embellishments."
The Swift Boat smear in 2004 on presidential candidate John Kerry's Vietnam service, the hit this year that forced Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in Connecticut, to explain and defend his Marine Corps service, and any number of "nannygates" and sex scandals are believed by their targets and supporters to be based on PI work.
Such revelations are some of the results of dogged searches into countless court and municipal records and probing interviews by PIs, usually well-connected former cops. The more races and closer they are, as in this year when states like New York have seen new levels of personal attacks, the more PIs get hired.
And although candidates know what they did, Torgerson said they also "want to know what the other people can find out. That's what it really boils down to."
Michael Corwin has seen his New Mexico-based private investigation business grow in the last four years, thanks in large part to political campaigns. He's done "self-investigations" and opposition investigations on dozens of statewide, state legislative and county candidates. He went from doing little on the political front a half-decade ago to turning away some business now.
Self-investigation by a candidate can fend off the "gotcha moment," said Corwin, once dubbed "the governor's PI" for being hired to vet New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's top hires and major contributors.
"It's a great idea because his campaign can talk to him about it and say, 'What was going on here?' and that way they can also be prepared," Corwin said.
It paid off. In September, a reporter called Paladino's spokesman, Michael Caputo, about a tip that a company the developer ran was hit with a felony a decade ago for failure to detect asbestos in a Syracuse bowling alley he was renovating.
Caputo immediately disseminated an e-mail video of Paladino produced long before explaining the case. The response included newspaper articles of the incident which quoted a federal prosecutor saying Paladino didn't have any criminal responsibility.
New York state elections records show private investigation firms were hired at least 21 times over the last four years by individual campaigns and county parties for more than $38,000 in fees. Three times more firms were hired this year than four years ago.
In those records, campaigns describe the work done by 11 private investigation firms. But PIs say the public record reveals only a fraction of the private business.
Most often campaigns hire private investigators through law firms. That allows the public campaign finance records to list only the law firm doing unspecified legal work or consulting, and extends a kind of client-attorney protection to the PI.
"Op research" has long been done by campaign workers collecting old news stories, voting records, civil suits and the like. Campaigns usually hire national political research firms, assign the duty to budding interns and eager college graduates, or in some cases hire a few political hands who have come to specialize in the work.
"In years with more contested seats, there will be more op research overall, though, and this is one of those years," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.