It’s one of the tried and true ways investigators have to explain their work. “Connecting the dots.”

What we usually mean is that in a sea of data, we can find the relevant material and put it in the right context by showing how it relates to other facts.

You sometimes end up with a compelling narrative in chronological order of someone’s life or business dealings, all plucked from billions of possible public records and interviews.

The problem is that in many dynamic investigations, people keep moving and doing different things. The dots are in motion.

A perfect illustration hit me last week when I looked at the painting above by Sophie Taeuber-Arp, a brilliant painter, sculptor and designer who died far too young in 1943. The painting from 1934 is called “Equilibrium,” but its equilibrium looks like it lasted for less than a second. If you look at the picture, the green ball on the right and the figure on top are not held up by anything. The rest of the figures look precarious.

Lots of investigations present a “snapshot” of what we find, but things are often about to change, as in this picture.

Ten years ago we wrote about the arrest of an employee of New York’s Catholic Archdiocese Background Checks for All. Anita Collins had been charged with embezzling funds from the church. After our article, she pleaded guilty to taking $1 million in 450 small payments to herself over many years. She was sentenced to as many as nine years in prison.

What made the case interesting for us is that Collins had been hired just before a new policy took effect, requiring background checks on all employees. A background check would have turned up previous problems she had with handling money.

Later on, when the church went back and required checks on employees there from before the policy’s start date, they required checks only for longtime people who dealt with children. Collins was exempt.

Where the dots are in motion in this kind of situation is simple: An employee could come aboard with minor responsibility and then work his way up to the point where he handles a lot of cash. But, his time with the company usually counts as some kind of quasi-investigation. [“But they’ve been with us for years!” is what bosses usually say when presented with evidence of employee theft.]  In reality, the more senior an employee, the more important a background check is, whatever the due diligence equilibrium used to be. People are always on the move, like the shapes in the painting. For really important employees, companies could consider periodic reviews to catch drunk driving, domestic violence, or financial stress taking place after hiring.

Other examples of connected dots in motion:

  • Databases have time lags and need to be checked repeatedly. We once needed evidence that a particular person was living in a particular apartment. When we started the case in February, nothing showed up for him. Then we looked again in April and there he was, having associated his cell phone with the apartment back in February. The time lag between recording the data and selling it to the database was two months. February’s “equilibrium” was different from April’s.
  • Social media, or course, is always being refreshed. If the case is active, keep monitoring it. People sometimes (carelessly) ask friends to call them on a cell phone you didn’t know about the month before. They give away vacation spots and the names of trusted friends. Very useful!
  • Asset searches. The minute the subject may think you are looking at his company, get ready for him to form a new company. If you discover a new company and ask him about it, the money may be on the move again. Sure, it could be a case of fraudulent transfer, but you still have to keep track of where the funds are going and when.

Taeuber-Arp’s picture is exciting to me the way investigations are: Things never stay the same for long.


If you enjoyed this article, you may also want to look at our other blog, The Divorce Asset Hunter (