17 July 2002. Though light filters in through the single window office, the hour barely qualifies as morning. The law firm seems oddly quiet without the usual commotion of the workplace. M - the resident early bird - believes it's the best time of day for actually accomplishing work. Usually.
But today, she stares at the computer trying to remember what Lawyer X showed her about searching public records. Maybe if she glared at it, the mouse would figure it out. On the verge of admitting defeat, M suggests out loud that the mouse, the computer, and the whole world of online information take a walk on the freeway at rush hour.
"A bit of an impossibility," comments X, who watched her, unobserved until now, from the doorway.
"You," M replies, not skipping a beat, "May go too."
Unruffled, X hands her a cup of coffee. He swallows a grin. He knows her frustration stems from a lack of familiarity with online sources of information. Complicating matters is the certainty that the resources and search strategies will change by the next time she undertakes such research.
"I come in peace," he offers.
M smiles and reaches for the coffee as if it were a lifeline. "Okay, you can stay." Then ever the pragmatist, she admits, "Besides, I need you."
Investigating the Background of an Expert Witness) investigating the background of an opponent's expert witness.
They verified her credentials and found unreported cases where she had testified. They also discovered her Web site,
located the topic of her dissertation and copies of articles she had written, found news stories mentioning her, and
learned about her involvement in state legislative hearings on relevant special education issues. Now they turn to
researching public records in an attempt to uncover information they can use to their client's advantage.
Although the full-text of many public records today still exists primarily in paper, online media increasingly provide information about them. Both LexisNexis and Westlaw offer numerous databases relevant to such research. Additionally, specialized online vendors -- perhaps not as well known amongst attorneys -- as well as government agencies, produce public records databases.
The databases contain a vast array of public data, which may shed light on potentially embarrassing information. Imagine discovering that opponent's energy management and finance expert legally changed his name several years after a felony conviction. Picture uncovering evidence of questionable business affiliations not listed on opposing expert's curriculum vitae.
Felony convictions and business affiliations comprise a small piece of the pie that represents public information residing in databases. Lawyers may also unearth tax liens, bankruptcies, judgments, pending and past litigation, misdemeanors, assets, professional licenses, significant share holdings, UCC liens, marriage, divorce, voting and death records, campaign contributions, exclusions from federal contracts or participation in Medicaid and Medicare programs, defaulted Health Education Assistance Loans, NASD disciplinary actions, SEC sanctions, and more.
While LexisNexis and Westlaw provide access to some of this data, it behooves frequent researchers to subscribe either to
ChoicePoint Online or
AutoTrackXP (both owned by ChoicePoint). These services offer a cost-effective means of gathering information about individuals. Moreover, certain features assist researchers by suggesting possible relationships. ChoicePoint Online's Discovery Plus, for example, surveys billions of public records to find business affiliations, bankruptcies, liens, judgments, assets, and more. The more identifying information
(e.g., full name, date of birth, SSN) you provide about an individual, the greater the accuracy of these search results.
Recent news stories raise concerns about the accuracy of data residing in commercial public records
databases. (See, for example, "Unregulated
Databases Hold Personal Data.") Researchers should, of course, verify data before relying on it. Obviously, a search
that spans billions of public records, using only an individual's name, will likely find data about more than one person
with the same name. But a query that combines the name with a social security number or date of birth typically will yield
more relevant information.
In any case, such data requires analysis and verification. Is it safe to assume that a tax lien remains opens because the online record says it is? No. You must verify the status of the lien with the appropriate county recorder's office.
report by the House Committee on Government Reform revealed that the Web site, Nursing Home Compare, which offers inspection data and other information about nursing homes, neglected to record more than 25,000 violations reported by state
investigators. This case in point illustrates that any thorough public records research demands a manual inspection of paper
indexes and records.
In addition to conducting commercial database searches, lawyers should examine public data available from government and other regulatory entities. An investigation concerning a psychologist (this fictional scenario), for example, should also encompass a check for disciplinary actions, professional licenses, pending and past litigation, felonies, misdemeanors, and exclusions from participation in Medicaid and Medicare programs.
Not all the data will reside online. Obtain public disciplinary information, for example, with a phone call to the appropriate state board or association.
If you know the entity responsible for the information you seek, examine its Web site to discover the existence of a helpful database. The Web site of the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, links to its
Exclusions Database directly from the home page.
If you cannot find an appropriate database at an agency's site, try searching for it at
Google. Go to the advance search page. Enter the word
database as your keyword search and limit the query to the appropriate domain or host
Public records finding tools abound and may also assist in the quest for sources of public data. The Virtual Chase provides sections on sources of public records in both its
People Finder Guide and
Company Information Guide. Other helpful compilations include
Online, BRB Publications' Free Internet Access to Public
Records, Legal Dockets
Online, and SearchSystems.net.
"Good grief, X!" exclaims Lawyer M. "We've spent hours! There are no disciplinary actions. No criminal records or exclusions. No litigation of interest. Not even an expired professional license!"
"Yeah, there's also nothing to conflict with the information provided on her c.v." He sighs. "She's clean."
"Is it worth it? I mean, what are the chances the expert's not up to snuff?"
Partner Gruff suddenly pokes his head in the door. Interrupting their conversation, he nods to M. "Lawyer X," he begins, "I just finished reading your memo on the results of the background investigation for our communications client."
A group of individuals had approached Partner Gruff's client with an idea for forming a new business venture. Excited about the proposal, the client asked Gruff to help it launch the new company, which it believed had enormous profit-making potential.
The background investigation, which Gruff convinced the client to allow him to conduct, uncovered felony convictions, an SEC investigation, and ties with an anarchistic group, not to mention bogus credentials, federal tax liens, bankruptcies, and multiple civil judgments.
"It's incredible!" Gruff continues, shaking his head. "Scoundrels!" Then, as if for emphasis, "Liars!"
Well," he harrumphs, "Good job."
After Gruff leaves, Lawyers X and M make eye contact. They can still hear him muttering to himself as he walks down the hall.
"Don't say it," M warns.
X smiles. "Say what?"