IRE14: Investigating powerful institutions, inside & out

This is part of a series of posts from the Investigative Reporters and Editors 2014 conference. Follow along with the conference on Twitter with #IRE2014. Here’s the full schedule and a list of all conference tipsheets.

Investigating powerful institutions, inside & out

Speakers: Matt Apuzzo, The New York Times; Ross Garber, lawyer; James Grimaldi, senior writer at The Wall Street Journal

Matt Apuzzo

His tipsheet is here.

Documents to look for

  • Where would it be written down. Who would have it. What would it be called.
  • Road map documents: Phone directories, flow charts, policy documents (we love draft policy documents)

The people you will meet on your journey:

  • The scorned lover. This person loved his organization, but then is left out. He’s using you to settle scores.They’re great. But you just need to know that they’re using you.
  • The only guy with half a brain in the damn place. Everyone else is an idiot. He likes you because you give him attention. He knows where the problems are. He’s using for an ego boost.
  • The charmer: She’s using you because she’s smart.
  • The suicide bomber: He’s in trouble and he’s using you to take the entire organization with  you.
  • The archivist: This person has all the emails in a box in the basement.

Ross Garber

He’s a lawyer hired by boards or governments to do internal investigations

Things to think about when there’s an internal investigation

  • Who is doing the investigation: If it’s the staff lawyers or HR staff, then it may be a smaller problem
  • If you see outside legal counsel coming in to do an internal investigation, that can signal the problem is larger. Why? We cost more money. Also, consider who the outside counsel is.
  • Every person interviewed by the investigator, the person is a potential source for a reporter
  • Every set of documents assembled for an investigator, that’s a potential set of records for a reporter to acquire

What he looks for

  • First, what public documents can he get. He can’t be spun by documents.
  • Before he hits the ground, he looks at securities documents, social media, Nexis
  • If he has time, he begins to acquire
  • When he hits the ground, he finds a sherpa to be his guide. It has to be someone he can trust to show him around
  • Second, he looks for an organization chart
  • Third, he wants a phone list
  • Then he debriefs his guide about the organization to find out what’s going on and what’s been done before he got there.
  • If he has time, he does email searches. He focuses on the key actors and key dates
  • He always looks for emails with no subjects. that’s where he finds the best information
  • Once he’s looked through all the documents, he considers talking to people. Talking to people is a lot more dangerous. Because once he starts to interview people, their next conversation could be with a reporter

How he approaches people

  • He tries to make them feel comfortable. He rarely wears a tie.
  • He brings an associate. He puts the associate outside of the site line of the person. The associate keeps notes.
  • His goal is to make the person get comfortable and build a relationship
  • He talks as long as he needs to collect as much as he does
  • Once he’s done that, then and only then does he break out the binders with the emails, tweets, etc.
  • After the interview, that person may not be going back to their desk again, if they’ve done something wrong

When reporters call, how does he deal with that

  • One of the first things he talks about with clients is what is the protocol with reporter
  • Normally, the rules is no one talks with out counsel clearing it, meaning him
  • That’s because there can be ramifications if people talk, with the stock price, law enforcement, etc.
  • Usually, all statements are cleared through the lawyers
  • Once the know enough, they anticipate a call from the press and a media statement is prepared.
  • That media statement says as little as possible. Every comma needs to truthful.
  • Your job is to say thank you and go away. Because if you don’t, that makes my job harder.
  • The inside press people will know the least about what’s going on. That’s because they are the ones most likely to have relationships with people in the press and would be most likely to talk. In a serious case, we may have outside crisis communications staff but even then their information is limited because it’s unclear if attorney-client privilege applies.

James Grimaldi

  • Search the clips: Search your own clips and Nexis.
  • Find a sherpa: But make sure to investigate them. Have the big talk: I will need to know everything about you. You might as well tell me now.
  • Map the connections: Get the org chart but you also want to make a social network graph to show the connections
  • Timeline: It seems obvious but I always start a timeline.
  • Do you homework: I don’t make a phone call until I’ve done a complete background on the person.

Other tips

  • James: Don’t ever say stuff to get in trouble. Don’t speak ill of the subject you’re investigating. Don’t put disparaging remarks in emails, notes and don’t even say it.
  • James: Prepare for the push back. Big institutions may call the editor or publisher. There may be letters to the editor or social media responses. The National Zoo ordered background checks. They wanted to know if the reporters were members of PETA.
  • James: Correct all errors
  • Matt: Visit the source at home. Call the flak when you have facts to talk with them about.
  • Ross: If you come in not knowing anything and ask for a general question, I will answer that question generally. The most you know, the better you are to ask questions and convince the flak that you’re onto a story instead of just fishing.
  • Ross: Outside investigations are secret because of attorney-client privilege. But often, the report is disclosed to someone else, such as a government agency. Once that report is disclosed, the attorney-client privilege is waived and sometimes, depending on the sate law, the attorney-client privilege may be waived for the entire topic.
  • Ross: I rarely create a full narrative report. i usually do a PowerPoint or bullet points. He usually just shows pictures of documents to show his case.
  • Ross: Don’t assume investigations are a whitewash. Agencies often want to get to all the facts.
  • Ross: Look at the relationship between the company and the law firm. He turns down a lot of work if his firm and partners have business work with a company. That could create a conflict of interest.
  • Ross: There is usually a record of an investigation just so the board can show a record of its due diligence

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