Why Private Eyes Are Everywhere Now

Private investigators have been touted as an antidote to corruption and a force for transparency. But they’ve also become another weapon in the hands of corporate interests.

One day in 2016, a Manhattan private investigator named Tyler Maroney went to doorstep a seasoned criminal. In this era of the ubiquitous smartphone, even an unscheduled call can feel like an intrusion; showing up unannounced at someone’s house can seem outright belligerent, and a bit antique. But Maroney, who is a careful student of human interaction, figured it’s easier to hang up on someone than it is to slam a door in his face. The man he was looking for, Bill Antoni (a pseudonym), had a rap sheet that included charges for assault, burglary, and attempted manslaughter. He had recently been released from prison, and Maroney consulted a proprietary database to find his new address. When Maroney arrived at Antoni’s apartment building, he found that the buzzer was on the fritz, so he waited until another tenant walked out, then slipped inside. As he was climbing the stairs, Maroney ran into a man who was walking out. He had tattooed arms and wore a gold chain around his neck.

“Mr. Antoni?” Maroney said.

In such encounters, some investigators adopt what is known as a “pretext,” telling a fib about the purpose of their visit, or assuming a fake identity. Occasionally, the ruse is more elaborate, involving a fictitious business, with phony business cards, e-mail addresses, and social-media accounts. But Maroney takes a dim view of such subterfuge. “I’m a private detective,” he said to Antoni. “I’m here to ask for your help on a case.”

He had rehearsed this overture, hoping to make Antoni feel enlisted, rather than antagonized. “My client is a man who spent more than ten years in prison for a crime he did not commit,” Maroney said. “He was a victim of police misconduct, and you may have information that can help.”

Antoni had a sideline as a police informant, and, two decades earlier, he had offered sworn testimony to help convict Maroney’s client of murder. Now the man was suing city authorities, and his attorneys hired Maroney, who runs a detective agency called QRI, to find the jailhouse snitch and see if he might recant.

Antoni invited his visitor in. A good sign. Prior to becoming a private investigator, Maroney had worked as a journalist, and he had an eye for detail. Surveying the apartment, he noticed moldings blurred by layers of accumulated paint, a CCTV camera, and, on a table, a holstered Glock. One wall was decorated with a homemade collage of J.F.K. memorabilia: photos of Jackie Kennedy, Hyannis Port, the grassy knoll. Unprompted, Antoni declared, “Kennedy was the last great American.” And, when he said that, Maroney knew: this guy was going to talk.

People talk to a detective for different reasons. Sometimes they want absolution, or credit, or justice. Sometimes they’re lonely, seduced by a sympathetic ear. Antoni revealed that he had been induced to supply fraudulent testimony in the case by crooked cops who offered him a break on his prison sentence. Maroney’s client ended up receiving nearly ten million dollars in a settlement. A third of that went to the lawyers. Maroney’s firm got seventy-five thousand dollars.

More than thirty thousand private investigators now work in the United States, Maroney reports in his new book, “The Modern Detective: How Corporate Intelligence Is Reshaping the World” (Riverhead). They engage in a dizzying variety of low-profile intrigue: tracking missing people, tailing cheating spouses, recovering looted assets, vetting job applicants and multibillion-dollar deals, spying on one corporation at the behest of another, ferreting out investment strategies for hedge funds, compiling opposition research. Contemporary private eyes, Maroney explains, are often “refugees from other industries,” including law enforcement, journalism, accounting, and academia. One hallmark of the business is discretion—like spy agencies, private eyes must often keep their greatest triumphs secret—so it is notable that Maroney would write a book like this. In a disclaimer, he says that he has had to change names and alter some details, presumably to protect client confidentiality. But “The Modern Detective” is not an exposé. It is part memoir, part how-to guide, a celebration of the analytical and interpersonal intelligence that makes a great investigator. When Maroney showed up for work at the giant detective firm Kroll, back in 2005, he e-mailed an executive to ask where that executive’s office was, hoping to introduce himself.

“Wow! So far I’ve burned a hundred and forty thousand calories today.”

“You’re an investigator now,” the man replied. “Find me.”

The private eye has been a staple of popular culture for so long that it can be difficult to disentangle the fictional archetype from the real thing, and part of Maroney’s aim in his book is to demythologize his vocation. This is a tricky undertaking, not least because the very notion of a private investigator first flourished not in the real world but in fiction. In 1841, before the word “detective” had even been coined, Edgar Allan Poe introduced the character of Auguste Dupin, a Parisian gentleman with “an unusual reasoning power,” who solves a grisly double homicide in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Dupin—who is thought to have been modelled on a real-life Frenchman, Eugène-François Vidocq—is a private citizen with a prodigious intellect, remarkable skills of observation, and time on his hands, cracking cases that stump the local constabulary. Dupin appeared in three Poe stories, and was the progenitor of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, and all who followed.

A decade after Dupin’s début, an Illinois barrelmaker named Allan Pinkerton established his own detective agency, in the eighteen-fifties. Pinkerton was the real thing: he investigated counterfeiters and train robbers, and adopted a corporate insignia featuring an unblinking eye and the words “WE NEVER SLEEP.” He began expanding the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, and eventually it employed thousands of agents across the country. For a time, the U.S. Justice Department outsourced its investigative work to the Pinkertons, and the firm provided a model for both the Secret Service and the F.B.I. Still, Pinkerton was prone to a little mythologizing himself. He published eighteen volumes of pulp fiction and embroidered nonfiction, with titles such as “Strikers, Communists, Tramps, and Detectives” (1878) and “Cornered at Last: A Detective Story” (1892).

The most famous veteran of the Pinkertons was Dashiell Hammett, who joined the agency in Baltimore, in 1915, and eventually migrated to California. Hammett worked as a Pinkerton operative on and off for seven years, and then quit to become a writer. His fictional detectives, including the nameless sleuth known as the Continental Op, in “Red Harvest” (1929), and Sam Spade, in “The Maltese Falcon” (1930), signified a departure from the genteel protagonists of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. Hardboiled detective fiction, as Raymond Chandler once explained, sought to “get murder away from the upper classes, the weekend house party and the vicar’s rose-garden, and back to the people who are really good at it.” To the jaded private dicks of Hammett and Chandler, the job was not some intellectual fancy, much less a noble calling. It was a job, and a dirty one at that.

Tyler Maroney’s career trajectory was the opposite of Hammett’s: he worked as a writer for a decade, for Fortune and other magazines, before a chance encounter brought him to Kroll. The founder of the company, Jules Kroll, is a legendary figure, the Allan Pinkerton of his day, who worked as a prosecutor in New York in the nineteen-sixties before establishing his own shop, in 1972. Kroll was deeply attuned to the iconography of his industry, and allergic to the image of the stereotypical sleuth with his trenchcoat and fedora, prowling the shadows like a bottom-feeder. If anything, Kroll seemed eager to restore to the profession the patrician aura of Auguste Dupin; he dressed like the corporate titans he hoped to cultivate as clients. Kroll got his start combatting extortion and fraud, but his business thrived on the more prosaic fields of due diligence, background checks, and corporate compliance. As these services became essential for white-shoe law firms and Wall Street banks, the company grew into a juggernaut, with offices all over the world, and gave birth to a new industry: corporate intelligence. (The year before Maroney started working there, the firm was acquired by Marsh & McLennan, for $1.9 billion.)

Globalization, deregulation, and rapid technological change have combined to create new threats and opportunities, Maroney observes, and, in his telling, a capable private investigator can assist the client in navigating this treacherous environment. More and more of our personal information is now readily available online, a vulnerability that has been a boon for the investigations business. As discreet subcontractors, detectives may be largely invisible in our contemporary landscape, but they have become “indispensable,” Maroney argues, adding, “We are everywhere.” In one passage that is both thrilling and unsettling, he describes the logistical challenges associated with stalking a target who is moving through a city, and suggests that on any given weekday in midtown Manhattan “there are, I would estimate, dozens of surveillance teams shadowing people.”

As Maroney sees it, the sort of old-school gumshoe work he has undertaken to help exonerate the wrongly convicted hasn’t been replaced, only augmented, by technology. He details the workings of today’s hybrid tradecraft with bracing authority. In one chapter, he describes making an after-hours visit to the Manhattan office of a private-equity fund, accompanied by a forensic technician named Louis. The fund has invited the investigators to its office, under cover of night, to scan the hard drive of an unsuspecting managing director. Louis photographs the computer cables and the proximity of the chair to the desk, documenting a still-life that he will reassemble once his work is done. Then he removes the hard drive and mirrors it, eating a Clif bar and drinking a latte from the break room while he waits. What might seem like an egregious invasion of the employee’s privacy is, in fact, perfectly legal, Maroney explains, because the computer belongs to the employer. It emerges that the managing director has been planning to defraud the fund by having it invest in a company in which he holds a secret stake. None of us, Maroney advises, “should use our employers’ systems for personal use (especially if it’s criminal).”

Many private investigators come from the clandestine intelligence services. One of the most notable was Christopher Steele, who worked for M.I.6 before establishing the London-based business-intelligence firm Orbis, and preparing a dossier on connections between the Russian government and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Maroney argues, however, that the work of the modern detective shouldn’t be mistaken for a privatized form of espionage. “The tool kit available to private investigators is considerably less potent than the one available to spies and cops and prosecutors,” he writes. “We cannot flip witnesses, blackmail agents, develop confidential informants, bug phones, offer protection, send subpoenas, or bribe sources.” Indeed, when veterans of spy agencies and law enforcement transition to the private sector, a standard lament is that they have been stripped of the invasive powers that they had come to take for granted as agents of the state.

There are private investigators, of course, who find the old techniques irresistible and continue to employ them, often in contravention of the law. Some, Maroney says, “exploit shady reputations to attract clients with shallow morals and deep pockets.” Working on behalf of Harvey Weinstein, the Israeli firm Black Cube, which was founded by two former spies, routinely engaged in pretexting—creating false identities and fictitious companies—and, according to the book “Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators,” by my colleague Ronan Farrow, may have relied on unlawful surveillance techniques. (Black Cube denies this.) After Uber hired the private intelligence firm Ergo to investigate people who were suing the company, a federal judge described the investigators’ tactics as “blatantly fraudulent and arguably criminal.”

In Maroney’s view, a firm that resorts to such conduct does a disservice to its “clients, to the industry, and to society.” Most private investigators work within the rules, he says, and those constraints require them to be “more creative.” At times, “The Modern Detective” can read like a promotional brochure, depicting investigators as “painstaking and nimble, law-abiding and enterprising, imaginative and deliberate—all to ensure our clients get the hidden information they need.” Indeed, Maroney writes that one of his purposes is “to demonstrate that our services are necessary throughout the ecosystem of global transactions and disputes.”

It’s certainly true that this ecosystem is becoming increasingly opaque. In another new book, “Kleptopia: How Dirty Money Is Conquering the World” (Harper), the journalist Tom Burgis depicts an unsavory coalition of corrupt strongmen, artful criminals, and rapacious élites who, abetted by a network of accountants, lawyers, and other professional facilitators, have managed to pillage money on a grand scale and hide it abroad. When millions of confidential files from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca were leaked to the press, in 2016, Burgis observes, it was as if someone had flicked on the lights: suddenly the public could see the outrageous self-dealing that had been happening all along, in the dark. “From Australia to Argentina, Iceland to Rwanda, presidents, prime ministers and their advisers and confidants, intelligence chiefs, generals, ministers, legislators and central bankers had chosen to store their money not among their compatriots but within the global financial secrecy system,” he writes. The leaked files revealed that a hundred and forty political leaders held money in front companies. The monetization of public office, Burgis believes, is no longer an aberration but often the very “purpose of seeking that office.” The techniques of financial obfuscation have grown so sophisticated that theft is easy, and, for the thief who hires the right advisers, impunity is all but assured.

Jules Kroll has claimed that the role of his industry is to “keep the fish tank clean,” and Maroney makes a compelling case that the private detective is an antidote to the prevailing trends of financial malfeasance, a check on corruption and fraud, and a force for transparency and accountability. In one delightful chapter, he tells the story of Michael and Linda Mastro, an elderly couple from Washington State, who, facing bankruptcy and a stampede of pissed-off creditors, shipped their Range Rover to Portugal, boarded a private jet with their beloved Shih Tzus, and fled the United States. Maroney recounts how a pair of patient, charming investigators managed to track the couple to Annecy, in the French Alps, and then, in a moment of inspiration, paid a visit to the poshest veterinarian in town and showed him a photograph of Michael Mastro. (“Find the dogs, and you find the man.”) With the help of the investigators, who were working on behalf of the Mastros’ creditors, authorities were ultimately able to recover twenty-four million dollars in assets. Asset recovery is a major staple of the business. Maroney notes that Kroll helped to repatriate the plundered riches of dictators like Saddam Hussein and Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier. In a 2009 Profile in this magazine, Kroll told a story about how Baby Doc’s assets were not so difficult to trace, because he paid for them by check. “Apartment in Trump Tower?” he said, pantomiming the dictator writing out a check in longhand. “ ‘Trump . . . Tower.’ ”

Yet Donald Trump is now President; transparency and accountability could hardly be described as on the upswing. On the contrary, the wealthy and powerful are ever more capable of gaming the financial and legal systems to compound their own advantages. This is one nagging dissonance at the heart of Maroney’s book. He tells us that his firm, QRI, specializes in “investigations that seek to benefit the public interest: reforming the criminal justice system, holding corrupt government officials accountable, exposing financial crimes, fighting the causes of climate change.” And, indeed, this one small firm boasts a laudable record of such work. But how typical is it?

In a 2010 book, “Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage,” Eamon Javers takes a more jaundiced view of the industry, depicting private investigators as an accoutrement of corporate power, a tribe of highly skilled mercenaries who seem mostly untroubled by matters of moral conscience and ready, even eager, to flout the law, gaining access to personal phone bills and banking records. Maroney is dismissive of this characterization, suggesting that Javers cherry-picked sensational anecdotes. “My colleagues and I work hard to maintain integrity, and I would argue that private investigators benefit the public good in sharp contrast to our reputations,” he writes. But he also mentions that roughly “once a month” someone asks him to break the law. And, because the detective business is frequently an adversarial one, the professional ethics of the trade differ, in significant ways, from conventional ethics. An investigator can follow every legal and ethical guideline and still be doing the wrong thing. When Tyler Shultz, an employee at Theranos, attempted to blow the whistle on fraud inside the tech startup, the company had him followed by private eyes. If investigators sometimes function as agents of transparency, they also sometimes do the opposite, seeking not to clean the fish tank but to muddy it. It depends on the client—and the detective.

Hackers, who have some affinities with private eyes, are often distinguished as either “white hat” (law-abiding and scrupulous) or “black hat” (neither of those things). Maroney, decrying “the misperception that private eyes are amoral rule flouters who deploy dark arts,” points out that private investigators are generally hired not directly by clients but by “lawyers, including the world’s savviest and most ethical.” Still, there’s little comfort in the fact that Black Cube was engaged to surveil and intimidate journalists not by Harvey Weinstein but by the celebrated attorney David Boies. (Boies, who also represented Theranos, has said that he regrets his handling of the Black Cube contract.) Lawyers, even the world’s savviest, can be prone to a certain ethical flexibility.

Cartoon by Michael Maslin

When the rapper Meek Mill was nineteen years old, in 2007, he was living in a house at 2204 South Hemberger Street, in Philadelphia, where several of his cousins also resided. Some of them were in the drug business. Meek was pursuing another line of work—he wanted to be a rapper—but he did carry a gun, illegally. He walked out of the house one evening and spotted a team of cops approaching. According to Meek, he immediately placed his gun on the sidewalk, but the cops rushed him, bundling him into the house and beating him mercilessly. In a photo taken not long afterward, his face is lumpy and bandaged, his left eye swollen shut. The next day, Meek was charged with aggravated assault, possession with intent to deliver crack cocaine, and seventeen other charges. Most damagingly, the cops maintained that, when they approached, he pointed his gun at them. To Meek, this was a laughable assertion. He was a young Black man. Had he pointed his weapon at advancing police officers, he would almost certainly be dead. But one of the cops, Reginald Graham, testified to that version of events, and a judge sentenced Meek to prison, which was followed by a decade of probation.

He was released after eight months, and continued to pursue his music career, with considerable success. He worked with Rick Ross and with Jay-Z, both kingmakers in the hip-hop industry. But he was still on parole, and the judge who had sentenced him, Genece Brinkley, seemed to take a fanatically punitive interest in curtailing his new career. Even as Meek travelled the country on tour, he was obliged to seek preapproval from parole authorities for his movements. When he slipped up, even in small ways, Judge Brinkley would haul him back into court. Eventually, in 2017, after a string of trivial violations, she sent him back to state prison with a new sentence of between two and four years. Meek Mill was thirty now. He had a son, and a thriving music career. Jay-Z wrote an Op-Ed in the Times, arguing that Meek’s plight was emblematic of how the criminal-justice system “entraps and harasses hundreds of thousands of black people every day.”

Among fans online, a #FreeMeek movement arose. The rapper was now represented by top-shelf criminal defense counsel, and his lawyers turned to Tyler Maroney’s firm, QRI. Maroney, working with a colleague, Luke Brindle-Khym, compiled a dossier of evidence on Judge Brinkley, revealing a pattern of vindictive behavior. The judge, it turned out, was also a serial litigant, who had initiated dozens of lawsuits on the slightest of pretexts. Meek’s attorneys demanded that she recuse herself from the case, but she wouldn’t. So the investigators decided to reëxamine the original arrest at 2204 South Hemberger Street. The cops had shown up that night with a search warrant, which they had obtained after claiming to have witnessed Meek Mill selling drugs on a street corner and then returning to the house. Yet, when Maroney and Brindle-Khym reënacted the scene that the cops described, the angles and the vantage points didn’t add up; it seemed unlikely that the police could have made a positive identification. Nor did the report’s description of the drug seller mention his having braids, which Meek did at the time—a conspicuous identifying feature.

When the investigators looked into Reginald Graham, the officer who had written the search warrant and testified against Meek, they discovered that he had subsequently left the police force after an internal investigation found that he had stolen money and then lied about it. Another disgraced ex-officer told them that Graham had been part of a ring of Philadelphia cops who robbed drug dealers. (Graham has denied the allegation.) After this information was brought to light, Meek was released from prison, five months into his sentence, and an appeals court ultimately overturned his conviction. He pleaded guilty to a single weapons charge, and is now free of court supervision for the first time in his adult life.

“We are traditionally hired by criminal defense lawyers to counter the unparalleled resources of prosecutors,” Maroney writes, and the Meek Mill case would seem to illustrate why private investigators are indispensable to righting the wrongs of the criminal-justice system—a system that ensnared a young Black man until investigators were able to expose corruption, and free him. But, of course, the acclaimed rapper had become precisely the sort of wealthy, expertly advised individual who can avail himself of such tools. Maroney suggests that “the most indigent among us” also benefit from investigators, and that “federal and state governments often not only provide defendants with lawyers but also subsidize investigators, among other experts, to support a legal defense.” Realistically, though, extensive investigative resources are mainly a prerogative of the privileged. In certain cases, investigators may help remedy the imbalances of our justice system on behalf of the powerless. But their deployment mostly ends up reinforcing these inequities. One wonders how Meek Mill might have fared had he been able to hire a topnotch investigator back when he was a poor Philly kid of nineteen.

In a 1949 essay, the social critic David T. Bazelon argued that Dashiell Hammett’s real subject was “the ascendancy of the job in the lives of Americans.” Where Sherlock Holmes was “essentially an English gentleman acting to preserve a moral way of life,” Hammett’s world is one in which “the moral and social base is gone.” Hammett’s investigators are morally pliable, less assured that there is anything edifying about their professional exertions. These men aren’t “doing their duty,” Bazelon writes. “They are merely doing.”

Bazelon—who later wrote speeches for a federal judge, his uncle, famed for expanding the rights of criminal defendants—describes the Hammett gumshoe as a job holder whose adventures “begin with an assignment and end when he has completed it.” (The same structure holds for each of Maroney’s chapters.) The hardboiled detective knows that there are no guarantees about a client’s moral worth, and, indeed, he frequently finds himself working for the bad guy. So Hammett’s detectives approach their professional obligations in a spirit of weary detachment. The “moral problem—the matter of individual responsibility or decision-making in a situation where society has defaulted morally—is never even faced, much less resolved,” Bazelon writes. “The question of doing or not doing a job competently seems to have replaced the whole larger question of good and evil.”

Maroney acknowledges that investigators “do not always choose their clients.” He discloses that he was once hired to conduct dozens of interviews just so that his interview subjects would report to their boss that a private eye had been asking about him. “I was, in essence, used as a tool for intimidation,” he writes. And he describes uncovering criminal wrongdoing in an investigation, only to learn subsequently that a client has, for one reason or another, chosen not to act upon the information. Investigators can pledge to follow the law; they can regulate their own conduct by adhering to a finely honed ethical code. But, like Hammett’s detectives, they answer to clients, and the client is in control. The professionalization of the industry means that personal values are, necessarily, sublimated to corporate objectives. The investigator is no longer an amateur, like Dupin, or a morally conflicted lone gun, like Spade, but an instrument of the check writer. Often, the detective, hired by a law firm or some other intermediary, does not even know who the client is. Maroney appears to have succeeded in fashioning a righteous career. Still, the typical modern investigator combines impressive technocratic ability with conspicuously limited moral agency.

When Hammett talked about Sam Spade, he said that his character had “no original”—that he was not based on any actual investigator. Rather, he was an ideal. “He is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been,” Hammett said. It takes nothing away from Maroney’s fascinating account to say that the gap between the profession’s noblest aspirations and its customary activities is a subject worth investigating

All Rights Reserved for Patrick Radden Keefe

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