Earlier this summer, private investigator Michael Fellner called a London-based businessman, seeking derogatory information about Mitt Romney, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts. The snoop refused to identify who had hired him, but when the story surfaced in The Boston Globe, it embarrassed Fellner's client: the Bay State's senior Democratic senator, st by police whey.
Using a private detective to investigate a political rival is hardly new. After all, 25 years ago the Nixon White House dispatched a gumshoe to fish for details about Chappaquiddick. But in growing numbers, candidates at all levels are moving beyond standard "opposition research" techniques -- the thorough examination of public records -- to hire high-priced professional investigators to collect even more damaging data on their opponents. Some of their muckraking uncovers real scandal, but their work is not without controversy: three years ago, PI Fellner was accused of digging for dirt by absconding with a British businessman's garbage. Fellner says he was only interviewing construction workers outside the man's home.
Among the politicians who have hired private investigators is Bill Clinton. Public records show that flamboyant San Francisco detective Jack Palladino was paid more than $100,000 by the 1992 Clinton campaign to suppress what a staffer called "bimbo eruptions." The Clinton campaign later hired another investigative firm, The Fairfax Group, to check out the backgrounds of potential vice presidential nominees.
It's hard to judge how widespread the practice really is because campaigns often conceal their use of detectives. Clinton's campaign, for example, did not at first report its payments to Palladino, instead routing the money through a Denver law firm. Ted Kennedy's campaign makes lump-sum payments for "consulting services" to a Washington law firm, which in turn pays Fellner's employer, The Investigative Group Inc. (IGI), an elite international investigative agency that represents blue-chip clients like Martin Marietta Corp. and Harvard Law School.
What are the private investigators looking for? In researching Romney's business background, IGI has looked for information that might tie his companies to convicted arbitrageur Ivan Boesky and insider-trading scandals. IGI also fished for evidence that would link Romney's Latin American business partners to Salvadoran death squads. They found none, but a recent Boston Globe article suggested darkly that "members of the extended families" of the investors in one of Romney's companies had ties to "right-wing paramilitary groups."
IGI maintains that it doesn't poke into the private lives of candidates. Not all investigators have always been so fastidious. The current gubernatorial campaign in New York has been marked by a heated debate over the use by GOP candidate George Pataki of veteran political investigator Gary Maloney to dig into the record of New York Gov. Mario Cuomo. In 1990, Maloney gained notoriety when he was accused of trying to dig up dirt on the drinking habits of a candidate in Texas. The 1992 Bush campaign hired him to pore through British archives looking for compromising pictures of Bill Clinton at antiwar rallies. (He found none.) Maloney said he now avoids investigating private behavior: "I stubbed my toe once in the past and I learned that the personal stuff is not worth the trouble."