Sorting and Unsorting Facts
Context matters. We know this instinctively, and yet somehow we forget. We still tend to assume that facts live in their own separate bubbles. So when we research and analyze, we warily keep our findings in separate categories—information on person A separate from information on person B, which are both separate from facts uncovered about company C. We go to great lengths to avoid any cross-contamination because that may be messy or unwieldy and keeping things tidy is so satisfying.
But investigations are lots of things, and tidy is not one of them. Investigations are filled with loads of information which could be put into more than one category or, maddeningly, into no category at all. Investigators have to patiently wade through all that data, perhaps indulge in categorizing at first to help keep track of data, but then get rid of the categories and start to put things together. Only then can the dots be connected. Finally, a full picture emerges.
But how to connect the dots? How to avoid being overwhelmed when you feel like you’re drowning in data? We’ve sung the praises of chronologies in our blog entry, The Putin Plot and Investigative Timelines, as a good way to see the big picture. But this is especially true when a time line is built using facts from all sorts of different categories. Exploding those categories, taking those facts and putting them into a new context, may be the best way to make sense of information that might otherwise appear irrelevant or unrelated.
Take this example:
We recently investigated an executive who a few years ago gave quit claim to his wife of their family home in Pennsylvania. At first this transaction didn’t seem to fit into the narrative we were uncovering about his personal life. So we made a note of it and when it happened, figuring for the time being that it was nothing more than a savvy financial decision done for personal tax purposes.
But this turned out not to be the case once we analyzed what was going on around the same time at one of the companies the executive headed. Within weeks of the quit claim transaction, one of the companies was sued for several million dollars by another corporation. The plaintiff corporation alleged that it had been defrauded and accused the defendants of negligence. Although the executive was not named in the suit, he was implicated because he directly oversaw the transactions at the center of the plaintiff company’s claims.
Suddenly that quit claim, which initially seemed to be separate and apart from the executive’s professional life, made sense in the context of what was going on at his corporation. Given the timing, the transfer of this very expensive home to his wife suggested the executive was attempting to shed his assets in anticipation of being held personally liable in the lawsuit.
Then throw in the fact that the case was settled a mere 20 days after the suit was filed. Although the terms of the settlement were kept confidential, the timing suggests that the defendant corporation was happy to make the concessions necessary to settle the litigation rather than risk having the case proceed.
While we don't know for sure if this is the case, initial analyses suggest that these three facts combined—the quit claim, the lawsuit, and the settlement—are as close to an admission of liability as a savvy, well-represented executive is likely to make. But the full picture emerged only after we were willing to set aside the categories we’d created and place all the facts into new and different contexts.