Smile, it's candidate camera
 
Hidden cameras and 'dumpster diving' - welcome to the sordid and increasingly in-demand world of political muckraking.Douglas Frantz reports from New York.

Feeding an almost insatiable demand for negative information in today's world of bruising politics, private investigators are playing a larger - though mostly hidden - role in the public arena, digging up dirt on everyone from regulators to elected national and small-town officials.

Private detectives have moved into every corner of public life. They are hired by politicians and their surrogates, ranging from Senator Edward Kennedy to the House Judiciary Committee chairman, Republican Henry Hyde, and from the former mayor of New York, David Dinkins, to aspirants for local city councils.

The private investigators' thick reports are usually aimed at discrediting critics and disposing of opponents. But they are also used to identify and, if possible, to avoid potential embarrassments.

Today's breed of investigators includes former police officers (as always), former FBI and CIA employees, former prosecutors and, in a trend that raises new ethical questions, ex-journalists, who can tap news contacts to get negative information published.

Operating with little regulation or accountability, the detectives pose as reporters to spy on opponents or send in operatives who work as volunteers in the campaign. In a world where sensitive computer data flows freely despite privacy laws, some routinely obtain protected information ranging from phone records to medical histories.

They track down ex-spouses and former associates, often concealing the reason they are asking questions. They also go through trash from offices, campaign headquarters and homes - a practice known as "dumpster diving".

"There's not a garbage pail I won't get in, not an angle I won't aim a hidden camera at," said Larry Preston Williams, a former police intelligence officer in New Orleans, who sends every statewide candidate in Louisiana an offer to dig up "white lies" and other information about opponents.

What turns up most often is mundane: candidates or officials who misrepresent work history, education or military service. Baby boomers are particularly likely to fabricate service in Vietnam or a Purple Heart, he said.

Personal attacks have been part of political campaigns since the inception of the United States. But, for most of this century, unwritten rules kept "opposition research" within bounds. Inquiries focused on public information such as voting records and court cases.

Those rules vanished after allegations of marital infidelity drove Gary Hart out of the presidential race in 1988. Campaigns veered into nastier and more personal areas and, as they did, professional investigators replaced the amateurs, and techniques got more aggressive. Today, even candidates reluctant to get into the muck say they feel compelled to respond in kind.

This demand for political dirt arises during a boom era for private investigators in the business world. Started by the corporate takeovers of the early 1980s and fuelled by computers, corporate investigators are now an essential part of the information economy.

Annual revenues have grown five-fold to $US5 billion ($7.6 billion) since 1980, according to one industry association, and investigators are pivotal in everything from hostile takeovers to hiring executives and sniffing out internal fraud. The spillover into politics was natural.

One of the few major firms that solicits political cases is Investigative Group International, a Washington company run by Terry Lenzner, a former Watergate prosecutor. Though known as an investigator for President Bill Clinton's lawyers, he has also worked for Republicans.

Several years ago, Mr Lenzner created a division called Campaign Facts to specialise in political investigations. He also maintains a tiny law firm - Terry F.Lenzner PC - which several former employees said is used partly to provide an extra layer of confidentiality for politically sensitive inquiries.

Last year, Mr Lenzner was subpoenaed by the independent counsel Kenneth Starr to give evidence before a grand jury about inquiries into Mr Clinton's critics and two of Mr Starr's prosecutors. Mr Lenzner said he was not a target of the grand jury but, stung by the controversy, is considering cutting back on political work.

Mr Hyde, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, turned to a former Chicago police officer and private detective, Ernie Rizzo, when a critic was trying to draw attention to his role in a failed savings and loan association.

"Politicians are the easiest people in the world to set up," Mr Rizzo said. "They're all whores. You stay with them for a week and you'll catch them doing something - women or money or something. Forget about the millions spent in political campaigns. You don't need that. Everybody got to the top by stepping over somebody. Find the weakest link and attack it."

Mr Rizzo, as a lone operator, is typical of detectives who handle political work. A character who would be at home in a Damon Runyon story, he is outgoing and flashy. His holographic business card is emblazoned with the image of a spy and six phone numbers, including one for his boat.

Mr Rizzo said he was hired in late 1995 by James Schirott, a lawyer defending Mr Hyde in a Federal suit against him and other former directors of Clyde Federal Savings and Loan. The association's failure in 1990 cost taxpayers $US67 million. The lawyer wanted to know what a critic, Tim Anderson, knew about Mr Hyde's role.

From telephone records, Mr Rizzo found that Mr Anderson, a former banking consultant, had contacted dozens of journalists in an attempt to expose what he believed were the political roots of the savings and loan scandal.

Posing as a producer of an ABC news program, Mr Rizzo persuaded Mr Anderson to hand over his material on Mr Hyde - a bound file containing 388 pages of court records, newspaper articles and documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. It included minutes of Clyde Federal board meetings that showed Mr Hyde playing a more active role than he had acknowledged publicly, such as approving an investment in speculative options trading that eventually lost $US10 million.

Mr Rizzo, however, also wanted to know about Mr Anderson, especially his vulnerabilities. So, the detective said, "I warned him that Hyde was going to come after us and I had to make sure he didn't have any skeletons. I got him telling me all his weak spots". Mr Rizzo said he gave the file to Mr Hyde and was paid by a political ally of the congressman, not by his lawyer.

Getting a target's phone records is often the starting point of an inquiry. While Mr Rizzo was convicted of illegal wiretapping in 1977 for taping conversations in divorce cases, privacy experts say phone records fall into a grey area in most states.

Mr Rizzo said he got the records from a source at a telephone company, and the Illinois attorney-general's office said no State law was violated. The phone company said it did not provide customer records to anyone without a court order, and any employee who violated the rule would be sacked.

For clients willing to spend $US50,000 or more, Mr Williams, the New Orleans private eye, advises hiring a detective to start digging a year before the election. That enables them to start a trickle of negative information about their opponent that builds to a crescendo just before the election. He will not identify any clients who have taken that course.

For W.John Hathaway, the negative information was not a trickle but an explosion. Running for the Republican Senate nomination from Maine in 1996, he watched in shock as two major newspapers published articles the same day reporting he had been accused of having a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old babysitter.

Six years earlier, a girl who babysat his children in Alabama had claimed she had a sexual relationship with him. He denied the accusation. Two district attorneys and the State attorney-general investigated and decided not to prosecute at the request of the girl's parents. Hathaway has always denied the accusation and said he had expected it to remain secret because no charges had been laid. But rumours began to circulate during the primary, in which Hathaway was one of three Republicans vying for the seat left open by William Cohen. The others were Robert Monks, an established political figure in Maine, and Susan Collins, a political newcomer.

As the primary approached, Mr Monks became alarmed. His polls showed Mr Hathaway as the likely winner, and nothing had surfaced about the babysitter's accusation.

He turned to Mr Lenzner, whom he had known for years, authorising him to dispatch detectives from IGI to Alabama to investigate. "It isn't as if it was a secret," Mr Monks recalled. "It was a piece of information that was something that people didn't want to have anything to do with."

A person involved in the IGI investigation said detectives interviewed the girl's mother and other people and provided a report to the Monks campaign. Five days before the primary, The Boston Globe and Portland Press Herald published articles about the accusation, reporting that Mr Hathaway had denied the charges and had never been arrested.

But the whole exercise backfired. After the articles appeared, Mr Hathaway accused Mr Monks of leaking the story. Mr Monks admitted hiring a detective, but denied that his efforts led to the articles. Mr Monks finished last, with Mr Hathaway second and Ms Collins, who had refused to comment on the controversy, winning.

 
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