A Texas bank was ready to charge off a loan to a borrower who was more than $300,000 in arrears and appeared to have no more assets that could be seized for repayment.
But before giving up on the loan, the bank hired a private investigator. The investigator began looking through public records in city, county, and state agencies. The search unearthed a premium foreign automobile, a private airplane and several hundred acres owned by the borrower unbeknownst to the bank.
Confronted with the public record, the borrower gave no argument. Instead, he pulled out a checkbook and settled the loan.
In this example, the miscreant borrower was sniffed out by Rob Kimmons and Michael Guidry, two ex-lawmen whose Houston-based Kimmons Investigative Services, Inc. now beats the bushes statewide, looking for hidden assets of bank borrowers.
Massive bank failures in recent years, such as First National Bank of Midland and Penn Square Bank in Oklahoma City, as well as a sharp rise in bad loans at all of the major Texas banks, has created a boom in private investigative work for financial institutions.
“The banks have found that their information on their borrowers is, in many cases, very sketchy,” Guidry said. “Sometimes they have little more than the guy’s name.”
Fort Worth investigator James Bennett said that before the energy downturn forced banks to tighten their lending practices, that some confidence men could and did bilk bank lenders for money at will.
“We found a guy who had used false identities to fleece banks of $2 million.” Bennett said.
Besides banks, other businesses increasingly are turning to private eyes for stakeouts and electronic surveillance to detect employee theft and fraud, to investigate the backgrounds of prospective customers, partners or subsidiaries, and even to find if an individual is using an assumed name.
Bennett, like most private investigators in Texas, is a former law officer. He was chief of police in Watauga for six years before becoming a private investigator in Fort Worth two years ago.
Like most private investigators, he disputes the image of the private detective promoted by Tom Selleck’s Magnum P.I. and Simon and Simon on television, as well as movie detectives ranging from Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon to Burt Reynolds’ Mike Murphy in the movie City Heat.
Another Fort Worth private detective, John Ragland, president of Texas Executive Protection Services Inc., said, “I don’t drive a Ferrari. I’m no Magnum. To me, it’s a business.”
Unlike Sam Spade or Mike Murphy, the modern detective is far more likely to work with a file folder in hand rather than a gun.
“What we’re looking for is the paper trail in the public record,”said Guidry, a former Texas state trooper. In his previous job with the state, Guidry saw the more exciting side of police work while serving with the hostage negotiating team. He frequently negotiated with gunmen in hostage situations.
Investigators like Bennett, Guidry and Kimmons spend most of their time in public buildings, researching the trails of paper left by individuals that track purchases of things such as real estate, automobiles, and other assets.
Occasionally, the work is even more basic. Bennett said he has been retained to investigate individual identities.
“People often aren’t who they say they are, he said. “Identity searches are quite common.”
The main reason the real-life private investigative work is less Sam Spade-like is because of Texas laws. For starters, a private investigator in Texas can’t carry a gun.
“That takes a lot of the cops-and-robbers element out of the work,”Bennett said.
Also, investigators must be state-licensed, carry insurance and be bonded, and pass examinations on laws pertaining to investigative work.
There can be some danger, however. Fort Worth detective Lester L. Gutierrez notes that occasionally a private investigator will do a stakeout, generally to detect thefts.
“That can become a little sticky if you’re at risk of being detected,” said Gutierrez.
He said he had gotten work from companies seeking to buy another firm and who want all the information they can get in advance.
“It’s mostly background kind of information,”he said of such investigations. “Companies want to make sure that the information they’re given is accurate.”
Electronic surveillance is becoming increasingly common. This is particularly true for internal sting operations that are set up to detect inside thefts and fraud.
Wiretapping of telephones is legal in Texas if one of the parties in the call knows of the existence of the tap. But investigators report that companies seldom ask for taps, perhaps because of their controversial nature since Watergate.
Ragland, whose firm specializes in executive protection but also does investigations, said the newer lightweight, portable video cameras have made surveillance easier.
“Surveillance with cameras leads to a lot of out-of-court settlements,” said Ragland, adding that such evidence gathered while employees, customers or others are engaged in normal activities is seldom interpreted as entrapment.
Detectives report they get relatively few requests for the seamier kinds of information, such as marital infidelities, drug or alcohol problems or other misdeeds that can derail careers or corporations.
“I turn down that sort of work” said Gutierrez.
Guidry said he was asked by a politician, who had an eye on a statewide race next year, for a report on himself.
“He wanted to know what would turn up on him if somebody else did an investigation,” Guidry said.
By Dan Piller, Star Telegraph Writer