photo by Tom Morris
Just 3 rules: A painfully simple list of ethical Do Nots for investigators, courtesy of notorious PI scammer Chris Butler
A few years ago, whilst on a long, Saturday-afternoon drive, I tuned into one of my favorite public radio shows, This American Life. Love it or hate it, you have to admit—they know how to tell a story. The piece got me fuming about ethics and negative stereotypes surrounding our industry—one of my pet topics, as you may know.
The Incredible Case of the PI Moms is TAL’s take on the convoluted tale of Chris Butler, by now a wholesale notorious ex-private detective in California who became so obsessed with fame that he created an intricate (and bumbling) crime empire to sustain the fantasy-PI life he’d created for media consumption. It’s a fantastic case study in ethics—or in this case, the utter lack thereof.
Let’s start with the lexicon:
Ethics: n (‘e thics) – 1 plural but singular or plural in construction: the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.
2a: A set of moral principles. b: theory or system of moral values. c: the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group. d: a guiding philosophy. e: a consciousness of moral importance
3 plural : a set of moral issues or aspects (as rightness)
Origin – Middle English ethik, from Middle French ethique, from Latin ethice, from Greek ēthikē, from ēthikos First Known Use: 14th century
For the backstory, check out the original Diablo Magazine feature, which you can read here and here. Here you can listen to the full This American Life treatment, which continues the tale of a man so entirely corrupt and self-aggrandizing that his abysmal decision-making, amateurish criminality, and hubristic ignorance defy belief.
This story raises a great many questions: Is it okay to stage a ride-along for the media? Is it okay to craft a story for a client, improve on the facts a little bit, stretch the truth for the sake of drama? Is it okay to pretend to be law enforcement? Where is the line?
A few key lessons courtesy of Chris Butler:
1. Do not f**k with the media.
The level of arrogance required to think you can deceive a professional reporter is utterly astonishing. Competent journalists will dig for the truth, just like you do. They will vet all of your claims. If they do not, the press you’re getting is likely not worth the paper (or web-space) on which it’s written. If you stage a scene for a reporter, (s)he will find out.
Keep in mind that the media has access to the same data sources we PIs do. (IRB is a LexisNexis product. Clear comes to us via Reuters.) Reporters are resourceful, creative, and tenacious. (Sound familiar?) How, pray tell, do you think investigative reporters break such amazing stories? They interview witnesses, search public databases, visit the crime scene, follow the long and winding thread.
conclusions: It is not okay (nor is it a smart move) to stage a scene or a case for the media, even if it’s a “reenactment.” Look at it this way: How would you feel if a client fed you a BS story? Would you check the facts with extreme prejudice? After being treated like some gullible rube, would you, perhaps, develop a certain increased motivation to uncover the truth?
Nobody likes to be lied to or manipulated.
2. Do not create fiction for your client.
Do not exaggerate facts, even if they are the “facts” your clients want to believe. It is in no way okay to craft a story (even if it’s a case that you screwed up) for your client. Tell the truth. If you missed a key event, just tell them you missed it. Don’t “get your story straight.” Don’t try and backdate the video. It’s a disservice to your client, to the public, and to the business when you lie. It’s also a disservice to your character.
3. Follow the law.
Don’t break or bend it, no matter what you may have seen Jim Rockford do. We are not, in any way, exempted from laws. It is never okay to pretend to be law enforcement, unless you are law enforcement.
For certain, avoid the temptation to break and enter into another person’s house or office. Also, probably best to try and avoid tresspassing. (I had an unfortunate event a couple of years ago involving a property line dispute. My property-line survey was eventually proven correct, but I still got to enjoy the interior of a police station while that fact was determined.)
And in many states, placing a GPS tracker or listening device in someone’s car is not legal. That’s why I never do it. In short, obey the law. I would even argue that as PIs we have a responsibility to hold ourselves to a higher standard.
I have, in the past, scoffed at the requirement to attend yearly ethics training. After hearing the Chris Butler story again, I think it’s not such a bad idea. I doubt a one-hour ethics primer would have changed Mr. Butler’s methods, but it never hurts to expose people to common sense.
Corruption happens gradually, one small compromise at a time. First, you’re staging scenes to impress a reporter. The sham grows and morphs until it supplants the real work you once did. Next thing you know, you’re dealing confiscated methamphetamine with your corrupt cop buddies to fund your PI-company Potemkin village.
The biggest lesson of all, for me, is that if Butler had just stuck to the ordinary gumshoe work of breaking cases and taking care of clients, he’d probably be doing just fine right now. Instead, he’s doing time.
Don’t try to be a celebrity. Just do the work.