With over 40 years of experience in investigations, Jim Mintz shares his thoughts about the importance of digging deeper and conducting investigations openly. From the days of having friends at a courthouse to acquire documents in the seventies, to using present day investigative techniques involving social media and databases, Jim maintains that the best way to get to the bottom of things is to foster relationships and talk to people.
Research and data, in my opinion, rarely crack an investigation, rarely get to the bottom of things. I think of the research and the data gathering as like packing for a trip, packing my suitcase. And then interviewing people and talking to people is like taking the trip. You certainly don't want to go on a journey without packing for it... But on the other hand, you do not want to pack your suitcase and then sit on the edge of your bed.. until time runs out.
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About the speaker
Jim Mintz has been digging into wrongdoing for 40 years. He was first a freelance reporter, then became a private investigator and founded MinzGroup and then professor of investigative reporting at Columbia Journalism School's Stabile Program. His foundation, Dig Lab, is a part of the emerging Seek Initiative that is building a movement of citizen investigators. Jim helped create a game in the public interest (it's free) called Kleptocrat: How to Hide Dirty Money, which helps people practice ways to recognize and bust corruption and money laundering.
There are very few people in society, and not enough people, who are exposing the truth of what's going on around us and digging up information that's important to us. There are many fewer of those people than they're used to be.
I'm Jim Mintz. I have been an investigator all my life. I have been doing this investigative work for so long, forty years. I've tended to stick to, and be friends with, folks who approach it the same way I do. There are so many people in this community who like to connect to others. And in some ways it goes back to the old days, before the internet. The only way to succeed at digging up important facts was to connect to other humans. There just weren't very good tools for plugging into. I look back and remember a story with my father that, when I think about it, might have helped set me on this path, as an investigator.
My father was a lawyer in Washington and he represented Howard Hughes, the swashbuckling, wealthy fellow who, um, he would fly his own planes and he always, with the, you know, the starlets of the day. He was sort of a Bill Gates with some sex appeal, I would say. But he was very controversial and one day, a writer came out, a writer named Clifford Irving announced that he had worked with Howard Hughes to write Hughes’s biography – autobiography. And immediately my father said, ‘no, I've just talked to Howard and he's never heard of this guy, the guy's lying, it's a fraud’. And the whole world took the side of this writer. You know, Howard Hughes was known as kind of a strange guy, who would, you know, not be seen in public and so on. And so I felt sort of bad for my father. You know, here he was tied into this wealthy client and taking a public position with, you know, in the press, that ‘I represent Mr. Hughes, and he's never heard of this guy. And this autobiography is a fraud’. The entire world stood against Howard Hughes and Seymore Mintz and his friends, trying to argue that this was a fraud. And I remember repeatedly saying to my father, ‘gee, you're really not going to look good here. You're really sort of looking silly, you know, believing this strange Howard Hughes’. Well, my father and his friends exposed Clifford Irving as a fraud. They had gone, he and his wife had gone to incredible lengths to pull off this fakery. They had never met Howard Hughes. They did not write his autobiography, to the point where he told the author – Clifford Irving told his publisher – I'm sharing the money with Howard Hughes. And the publisher wrote a check to HR Hughes, which was cashed at a Swiss bank by Clifford Irving's wife, pretending to be somebody named ‘Helga R Hughes’. So they had gone to amazing lengths to pull this off. You know, the themes of my early years were how heroic it can be to expose cover ups and, kind of like my father in that one moment, he lived a very quiet life, but this wasn't a quiet moment.
If we're in COVID times and your friend, the nurse down at the local hospital, tells you that there's some strange deal with masks at the hospital, the masks don't work, there's some company that's bringing them in that seems to be very friendly with the head of the hospital. There's something very wrong going on here and we, the nurses, are suffering from it. I honestly doubt that there is going to be enough government agents or investigative reporters around in your town, wherever you are in the world, to dig into that and to get to the bottom of an injustice like that. And whether there's corruption involving these masks at the hospital, I doubt that the cavalry is going to come across the hill and save your nurse friend from that situation.
So let's say you want to be a bit of an activist. You want to do something about this. This is an important issue to you. What can you do? Uh, you can go in the street and carry a sign, that's activism. You can lobby, you can argue with your local politician that he should do something about it, or she should do something about it. But I believe there is this other form of activism that we can breathe more life into. And that is beginning to, to dig into the facts involving those masks down at the hospital, and beginning to dig into the company that brought them in and the under-the-table connections between the director of the hospital and the mask company, and so on and so forth. And perhaps doing some of that work yourself, perhaps plugging into a reporter who doesn't have time to do all the work, but would be happy to receive some tips from you, or plugging into a lawyer who might bring a lawsuit about it, or a politician who might call a hearing about it. I think there are various things that this kind of fact gathering can lead to.
I was a teenager in the 1960s. I grew up around Washington DC and I was an activist as even a young teenager. My big brother was part of the civil rights movement. He had been arrested as a kind of freedom rider in Mississippi, in the early sixties. And by the late sixties, I was a member of this activist organization called SDS, Students for a Democratic Society. The issues of the day were the Vietnam war, and racial justice. There was a massive cover up of what was happening in Vietnam and what was happening racially.
My brother and I would wait for each issue of this certain newsletter that would come in the mail by a lone reporter named I. F. Stone. A real digger, he had kind of a funny, uh, he would make fun of the Pentagon and the army and the White House for the lies that they were telling. He wouldn't just expose them. He would kind of laugh at them, and as a fifteen year old, I thought that was pretty exciting. Just funny to think back to the joy that we got ripping open a piece of mail to get to this truth, to get this cover up exposed, rather than turning on a machine and plugging into, uh, an internet.
So I started doing this in the 1970s, way before the internet. If you wanted to get your hands on a lawsuit in, uh, in London or Los Angeles, you had to have a friend who was willing to run down to the courthouse or get their friend who hangs out at the courthouse, to pull the paper for you and get it to you – sometimes by mail, by snail mail. I feel like I learned some important lessons in my youth about how to connect to other people who were willing to help, or who I could talk into helping with some investigation I was working on. Those moves, those dance moves of enlisting others helping have stayed with me even when the internet made some of this easier. When I was growing up in Washington, DC, and beginning to dig into things, you needed a friend at the Washington Post library. Because if you didn't have that friend, if the folks that worked there was unwilling to pull these physical clippings out of the library for you, then you had no way to learn what had been written before. I know it sounds ridiculous, but that's the way it was. You really valued those kinds of relationships, and you'd stop by the Washington Post library and they would bring out a thick stack of newspaper articles that had literally been clipped with a scissors out of the daily newspaper and stuck there under the heading – the name of the person, or environmental damage, or whatever the issue was. That history, I think, gave me a particular approach to relying on other people, as much as I rely on the internet or data.
Sometimes we begin to do an investigation that is intimidating in how big it is and how hard it is. So we set ourselves the job of, oh I don't know, finding the corrupt assets of a dictator. And that seems like a daunting, crazily complex task. What I do is to take what I call a to-do list approach, and to simply put on one page, if I can, all of the areas that we need to work in, and think of them as kind of orders to myself as to what I need to go off and do. And that to-do list generally breaks down into research, online and – think of it as gathering paper, chasing information on the web, and then chasing the paper out in courthouses or libraries or reading rooms, out in the world to the extent they're not online. That paper chasing and online chasing is often the first piece. The second piece is often talking to people and following up on what you've learned online and so on. And so by breaking things down into small parts, the gigantic and the intimidatingly complex becomes manageable.
We are very careful about going into some environment that we may not be able to get out of. There are good reasons, sometimes, to use the telephone to interview someone, for example, rather than flying into their country and knocking on their door. But I have a particular style that is not appropriate for all situations. I should say that I'm not trying to give anyone advice about how they should do things. I'm only talking about how I do them and what works for me. What works for me is to do investigations openly, to be proud that I'm asking around, to be very candid about who I am and what my – what I'm trying to dig into. And I think that addresses the safety issue in many situations. Again, I'm not trying to advise others, and I'm not trying to say that this works in every situation, but I believe that the subjects of our work are going to hear about it eventually, if what you appear to be doing is kind of sneaking around and hiding yourself that, puts you on the back foot, so to speak. And I like to do my work openly and proudly. Some young investigators, investigative reporters and so on, worry about being challenged, someone coming back and saying, ‘what are you doing?’. I'm not only ready to be challenged. I'm happy to be challenged. And that's a funny stance to take, but it's one that works for me. And what I mean by that is the way I portray myself is as an open-minded, curious, humble person going out and trying to get to the bottom of something. I'm really trying to get things right. And if you, the person I'm interviewing, or even the subject of my investigation, if you have anything to say back to me about, feel free. I'm trying to get it right. If you have a challenge, lay it on me, that's great. And to me, that's a stance that allows me to be wholehearted and direct about doing my work. I find that some people who don't take that approach who feel that they need to keep themselves a secret and their work a secret, almost feels like they're a little ashamed of it, or that they're not entitled to do this work. And sometimes, you know, at an NGO or an investigative, or young investigative reporter, they get to the end of their deadline or the end of their budget and they haven't talked to anyone because they've been so afraid to reveal themselves. I take a radically open approach.
And this sort of open investigation approach – open, proud investigation – is particularly important for me, because I really rely on people, as we've been talking about. I really rely on people to help with the investigation. Of course, I'm a big believer in social media and internet searching and geolocation and the other online arts, and the data gathering arts. But research and data, in my opinion, rarely crack an investigation, rarely get to the bottom of things.I think of the research and the data gathering as like packing for a trip, packing my suitcase. And then interviewing people and talking to people is like taking the trip. You certainly don't want to go on a journey without packing for it. That is you don't want to interview people without doing your homework. But on the other hand, you do not want to pack your suitcase and then sit on the edge of your bed for the next, until time runs out. And I have to say that I encounter investigators at NGOs and investigative reporters who are just starting to do this who kind of put themselves in that over-researched and under-interviewed position. Sitting on the edge of their bed, a packed suitcase of research and data and not doing a lot about it.
My wife is a Zen Buddhist, and she talks about the essence of Zen is not knowing. And that's part of living in the moment and not projecting your mind back to the past, or agitating about the future. And we don't know. And to me not knowing is the essence of what I really enjoy, as I pick up the phone to call someone, I don't know. To call a stranger who might have some information, perhaps they come out of this sort of secret world that I'm investigating. And that's why I'm calling them. I'm a human being who seeks some information. And they're a human being who might have some. But as the phone rings and they pick it up or as I knock on the door and they answer, I need to be humble about what I know and I don't know, and try to build some trust with another human being. That's the real challenge that we face in this work. And we need to remember that as they pick up the phone or look at our email, they don't know us and they don't trust us. So what can we do? I don't think it's enough to pretend to be trustworthy. I think you actually have to look inside yourself and to be trustworthy. And by the way, it's not just information that I want when I contact someone. That's part of it. But I'm also hoping they offer me some help. And it's almost different. There have been times when I approach someone and they say, ‘oh my gosh, there's absolutely no information I can give you on that topic, I'm not allowed to talk about it, I would get in trouble for talking about it’, and I say, ‘okay, well, let's let history record that you are not going to give me one piece of information. Not today, not ever, because you can't. And I understand that’. First of all, the person generally says,’ thank you for understanding that, you're not haggling me. You're not begging me. You're understanding me’. I say, ‘okay, no information. I wonder if there's a way you might be able to help me’.
I'll tell you a quick story if you like. I was hired years ago to investigate a fraudster, somebody who had come to the United States. She had a Viennese accent, she was clearly from Vienna, but nobody knew anything about her before a few years ago, when she showed up in the United States and began to do these frauds. And my client, a company that was defrauded by her, had hired the biggest investigative firm and they had been unable to find anything about her. And then they – this is when I was a kid. I might've been twenty-five years old – hired me to see what I could do. I was so young that the company, my client, sent me to Vienna with a sort of minder, with a sort of a corporate officer at my elbow to make sure that I didn't do something strange. And so we got to Vienna together and had our breakfast the morning after we arrived. And he said, okay, so what are we doing today? And I just had no idea. I didn't know what to do here. I was in this place of this investigation, but not knowing what to do. There had been a rumor that she had been wanted by Interpol at some point. So I looked up in the phone book, the Austrian national police, and I figured out the Interpol officer and I called him up. And again, even as a kid, this was my style was to just call people. And I said, I gave the name of this fraudster woman and he said, I can't even tell you, there's nothing I can tell you. And I said, well, would you mind if my friend and I came by and just, we're going to tell you a story about this woman.He said, sure, come on by. So I went back to the breakfast table. I said, well, we have an appointment with Interpol. And we went down there and we told the story of what this woman was doing in the United States. Here this was a Vienna cop who had either did or didn't know something about her before. He wouldn't really say one word to me. And he explained, ‘I can give you no information’. And I said, ‘I understand, and I will never ask you for information. I just wonder if you could help me’. And there was a silence. And then he said, ‘well, it's possible’. And he said, just, you know, ‘where are you staying? What's your phone number?’ And he called me that afternoon and invited me back. And the next day we went back to Interpol. He said not one word to us – by the way I spoke no German, I speak very bad German now – so this was a real genuine cross-border investigation. And he took me to a different building, up some stairs and opened the door on a gigantic conference room. And there were about three staffers working with files on the longest table I'd ever seen, maybe 20 feet of files. And he said, ‘this is the investigation of the woman you're talking about. It is still going on. And this is the civil side’. ‘I'm on the criminal side’, the cop said, but it's possible that the person doing the civil investigation might be willing to give you some of these documents, because they've come out publicly. None of this was known to us. I made arrangements to get copies of what I could and a couple of months later I was back at my apartment in Brooklyn, and about a gigantic pile of documents arrived by mail. It was the entire story of this woman's life as a fraudster, submitted to the court in the United States – I think a ninety-page affidavit telling her entire story in meticulous detail. And I guess I offer that as an example of how building trust with people and asking for help can occasionally work. The Wall Street Journal wrote about that case, this is in the early 1980s. And if you look back at my ability to attract clients to the private eye work, some of it had to do with that article.
I teach investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School, and I've been doing that for some years. And I see the important work that our graduates, for example, do after they get a degree – in effect a degree in investigative reporting – and then go out and do tremendously important work out in the world. So investigative reporting is healthy and happening, but as we're all aware, the internet and other forces, and authoritarian forces, have caused a tremendous decline in how much money the media has to pursue anything and investigative reporting particularly can be expensive. So while important work is going on, there is a kind of crisis in the media that certainly is reflected in investigative media.
I've been teaching investigative reporting now for fourteen years, I think. And there are about twenty students in our programme each year. I teach with a woman named Sheila Coronel, who is a brilliant investigative reporter. And I feel like we have turned out a generation of young investigative reporters. And I feel good about that. It's a programme that really digs deeply into the mechanics of what you need to master to go out into the world and encounter any issue really, and dig deeply into it. It's really quite rewarding. They, for example, in the last year, a number of students dug into COVID-related wrongdoing; a number of them worked on, for example, some stories about the burial ground, where poor people are placed who have nobody to cry for them in effect, you know, we sometimes call that a Potter's field or anonymous grave. The students concluded that something like ten percent of the people who died in New York city with COVID were placed in that, in that anonymous ground. I believe that the city, after their series came out, announced the kind of – they're gonna put up a memorial, a COVID memorial, and they're going to do it at Hart island, at this island where this Potter's field sits. And it just kind of chokes you up, that here we're honoring these folks who had nobody to stand at their grave when they were put in the ground. It's really something. But also more wrongdoing-related work, just really important to work that I hope they, the students, are proud of, and I'm proud for them.
Public interest, investigative community, I believe is thriving, but doesn't recognize itself yet as a community. And while many of us help each other, we could do better at that, to help each other dig deeply into important public interest matters. I just feel that we can only do what we can, and we cannot know what will result from something that we dig up. But I'm not particularly cynical about what happens when the truth comes out. Under the table of connections are shown and a cover up is exposed, and some fraud is revealed, and so on. I am a believer in that old idea that sunshine disinfects society. And I think there are things we can do about disinformation and not being lumped together with that. We can talk about that. Call me naive, but I believe that facts set us straight, even if not everyone is listening.
The Exposing the Invisible podcast series is produced by Tactical Tech.
Interview, production and sound design by Jo Barratt.
Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible team includes Laura Ranca, Wael Eskandar, Marek Tuszynski and Christy Lange.
Music by Wael Eskandar.
Additional music is November by Kai Engel used under a Creative Commons 4.0 Attribution licence and Waltzing in the Rye by Kai Engel used under a Creative Commons non-commercial 4.0 Attribution licence.
Additional Audio used have been dedicated to the public domain by their creators.
Illustration by Ann Kiernan
This podcast episode is part of a series of resources and publications produced by Exposing the Invisible during a one-year project (September 2020 - August 2021) supported by the European Commission (DG CONNECT)
This content reflects the author’s view and the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.