These are still early days for the scandal engulfing world soccer, but in the indictments and other stories emerging we see three distinct features crucial for most successful investigations.
We have written about all of them, but rarely are they captured so well in one single story so famously told as the one about FIFA.
1. What is a not a matter of public record in one country may be available in another.
A few days after the indictments were made public in New York, the Wall Street Journal reported on Nike’s entanglement in the FIFA probe. Nike is not accused of any wrongdoing, but in this story we get a fascinating look at what would otherwise be a secret contract between Nike and the Brazilian football authorities. How? The contract was made public in a Brazilian legislative inquiry. All that was necessary was for the newspaper to find it and translate it from Portuguese.
We do a lot of investigations that involve U.S. operations in the United Kingdom. Like many countries, the U.K. forces any company doing business there – even private ones – to make public their accounts. Names and addresses of shareholders, directors and lines of business that remain hidden in Delaware or New York come into the hazy sunlight of Great Britain when a company registers there. France also provides sales figures for companies registered in that country, so that if someone claims to be a corporate mogul in Paris you can legitimately ask him why his giant company only recorded 250,000 euros in sales last year.
2. Human sources are often irreplaceable.
Whatever anyone tells you in the course of an investigation, you will usually need documents of some kind to support the story being told. Those documents could be public or private. In the case of FIFA, it all started with a bunch of leaked documents from people in a position to gather the right information and get it to the right person – in this case the journalist Andrew Jennings. His story is well told by the Washington Post, here.
While investigations are sometimes best served by keeping a low profile, the journalist who started it all deliberately attracted attention to himself to alert potential leakers that he was interested in receiving leaks. At a news conference with FIFA President Sepp Blatter, he asked, “Herr Blatter, have you ever taken a bribe?” A full page ad could not have done a better job.
We always advise our clients that whether or not to “surface” in an investigation is a matter of tactics, and is always a client decision. But if you can afford to talk to people in addition to looking at databases and public records, it can be well worth the trouble.
3. Be First and Be Persistent
New investigators may be put off by the fact that there is very little useable material to be found in newspaper and other media searches. Good investigators take this as the challenge it is. Little coverage can mean there is nothing to be found, or that you will be the first to find it.
Being first carries risk. All wire service journalists know the story of the reporter who, as he was reporting a big scoop, received this worried cable from his desk editor: “You alarmingly alone on this one.” If you’re wrong, the alarm is justified.
But if you conduct your investigation thoroughly and provide proof of what you allege, you are doing your job well. If you’re first, you’re doing it even better.