I was hired to do a background check on a possible candidate for a political-appointee job. They’re not terribly unusual in this area. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t bother to ask why. If the person hiring me has a good reason for hiring me to investigate someone, asking why will often result in my learning a lot more than I care to know. I’m not a shrink, I don’t get paid for listening to other people’s problems. If someone has a not-too-good reason for wanting to hire me, they’ll just lie about it.
Sometimes I know they’re lying, sometimes I don’t. I check to see if there is a restraining order out with the person I’m supposed to check’s name on it. I’ll check to see if the person is a witness in the kind of cases where witnesses couldn’t afford to buy life insurance. But mostly, I’ll check to make sure that the checks that I’m given don’t bounce.
My name is Sam Hawkins. I’m a private detective.
Jobs to do background checks and surveillance have a cyclical nature in this area. Every two years, depending on the turnover in Congress, there’s an uptick in the number that I do. There are more after a presidential election. And if the presidency changes hands, especially if it changes parties, there are a lot more. There was a time when a political appointee’s or staff member’s private peccadillos or perversions were ignored. Forty years ago, most people in the know knew that the late Roy Cohen was gay. But it wasn’t talked about and as long as that evil troll kept his affairs private, nobody pried.
Times have changed. Smart political operatives want to make sure that their new-hires come without skeletons in their closet. Others want to find the ones that their adversary’s people have. About the only groups that I don’t work for are reporters and foreign governments. One is self-explanatory. As for editors, they are too stingy to pay pros to do the work that they think interns or cub reporters can do. Oh, and when a reporter digs up dirt on someone powerful, there is often a reaction to do a little dirt-digging on the reporters.
I do it all. One way to look at it is that keeping government clean involves swimming in sewers. The other way to look at it is that hey, it’s a job. Only in a few places, like New York, is there still work like nabbing cheating spouses. No-fault divorce had cut through my profession like machine guns at the Somme, the older guys had all retired or taken up residence at the horse tracks (or under railroad bridges).
My current job was on some kid in his early 30s named Peter Smith, who was being thought of for a position as deputy undersecretary of some federal agency. He apparently was angling for the job, but he hadn’t been formally asked as of yet. The winners of the most recent election wanted to try to verify that this kid was at least clean enough to run the risk of a formal background check. That seems inefficient, but there was good logic behind it. If someone is asked to apply (or applies for) a job like that and they fail the official background check, word of that failure has a tendency to later leak out and becomes political fodder for the other side.
It was more critical now, because the other side controlled the Senate, so the new Administration’s appointments would be looked at closely with an aim of scoring political points. It was all a nasty game and when one considered who some of the more hateful Senators were, it could get particularly nasty.
It would have been easier for me, of course, if they had told this kid that they were interested in him and asked him to fill out the proper disclosure forms and releases. They don’t do that because then the prospective appointees have been known to brag. In this town, information is a shadow form of currency. Knowledge like that would be traded and then become public.
This kid wasn’t looking too good. He was making a name for himself with a think tank. But before then, he was a ghost. He had gone to Penn State, at least I had a transcript from there. I had called the registrar’s office the transcript was legitimate. He had majored in political science, a degree that had a built-in oxymoron. He wasn’t a stellar student, solid B average.
I started calling his professors. The first one I talked to said: “I don’t remember him” and hung up. So did the second. The third one laughed, asked: “You know how many students named ‘Smith’ come through here” and hung up. The fourth told me what her office hours were and suggested that I show up.
Which I did the next morning. It wasn’t a terribly long hop from Manassass, Virginia to State College, Pennsylvania. It was easy because State College has its own airport and I have a Piper Cherokee. The fixed-base operator at the airport had rented a car to me at a discount because I had them gas up the airplane with their overpriced fuel.
There was one student waiting to see the professor. I flashed the kid some tin and suggested that he might want to go have some coffee for awhile. He thought that was a good idea.
Three minutes later, a young woman came out of the door. I heard a voice from within cry “Next!” I went inside. According to the university catalog, Anne Umphrey was a senior professor in the Political Science department. She appeared to be in her late fifties, she exuded rumpled professorial demeanor. I gave her my card and showed her my credentials.
“Ah, you’re the man who called me,” she said, and waved me to a seat. “Could you tell me what this is about?”
I explained about doing pre-checks on potential political appointees.
She nodded. “I know, I took a leave of absence many years ago to work for the Carter Administration.”
“Like I said, I’m running a check on Peter Smith. He graduated in 1981 with a B.A. in Political Science. He took two courses from you.”
“Do you have a copy of his transcript?”
I handed one to her.
Prof. Umphrey looked it over and handed it back. “No, I doubt if I would have remembered him. Those are large classes, easily a few hundred students in each one, and graduate students help me do the grading. And, of course, ‘Peter Smith’ is a very common name.”
“You wouldn’t have any grading sheets or something like that?”
“No, I sure wouldn’t. We have a records retention policy, otherwise we’d get swamped with records. You have to remember, we graduate 8,000 students a year. We keep records, other than transcripts, for ten years after a student drops out or graduates. His records would have been destroyed by now.”
“What about the rest of his courses? Any chance that he took a course with a small class size, where he might be remembered?”
“May I see that again, please?”
I handed the transcript back to her. She looked it over, this time slowly running a finger down the course listings.
“Almost all of these classes are large ones. We have several hundred students graduating with PolySci degrees each year. He had to do a writing project and this shows that he did it with Professor Siegel.” She gave the transcript back to me.
I cheered up a little. “Great! Can you tell me where I can find him?”
She shook her head. “He died in `85.”
Dammit. “OK, well, thanks for your time, Professor,” I said as I stood up.
“Sorry I couldn’t be of any help. And if there is anyone else waiting outside, would you send them in, please?”
“Sure.” I left her office. The same kid was waiting outside. I said: “Your turn” and jabbed a thumb in the professor’s direction.
After I left the building, I asked a group of students where I could get some coffee. Most of they gave me the eye, but one girl told me where a decent place was.
I went there. It was tolerable. And it gave me some time to think.