The tale of Harvey Weinstein's very public demise just keeps getting more bizarre. On Monday, in between another round of accusations against the former producer and movie mogul, The New Yorker published a searing, 5,000-word report alleging that Weinstein had recruited at least three intelligence companies to dig up information on and discredit both those making claims against him of sexual harassment and assault and the journalists investigating those claims. The companies—the investigations and risk consulting firm Kroll, the Los Angeles-based private-investigation firm PSOPS, and the private intelligence agency Black Cube, (staffed by "a select group of elite Israeli intelligence community")—collected information on dozens of people for Weinstein, according to the report.
Among the story's many eye-popping claims, reporter Ronan Farrow alleges that Black Cube attempted to extract information from accuser Rose McGowan by setting up meetings between her and a fake women's-rights advocate; that the same firm enlisted a freelance journalist to call other accusers and gauge how much they would talk; that Weinstein worked with the chief content officer of America Media, Inc. to get access to already-reported material on the allegations; and that all the hired security firms were attempting to get background information on journalists who were investigating harassment and assault claims. "Our research did not yield any promising avenues for the personal impeachment of [Adam] Moss," a Kroll report allegedly stated of the editor-in-chief of New York magazine, Adam Moss.
The New Yorker story stresses that Weinstein sought to keep investigations confidential by enlisting lawyers to contract his relationships with investigation agencies, thereby invoking attorney-client privilege on the materials uncovered. According to Farrow's report, Weinstein wanted to keep his name out of even internal communications at Black Cube, which called him "the end client" or "Mr. X" in emails. Farrow writes that the report "reveal[s] the tools and tactics available to powerful individuals to suppress negative stories and, in some cases, forestall criminal investigations."
But just how common are Weinstein's tactics? To learn more, we turned to Bruce Robertson, the founder of the L.A.-based private detective agency TriStar Investigation, founded in 1984. In 2009, Robertson was famously hired to track down the shooter of two endangered California condors; he says the majority of his clients are law firms, but that TriStar has had a "fair amount" of Hollywood clients. On Tuesday, Pacific Standard spoke with Robertson about investigating journalists, fake identities, and private-investigator ethics.
Have you read The New Yorker report about Harvey Weinstein enlisting private investigators to look into accusers and journalists?
I read the New York Times article about the report. I did not read the full article—it's pretty long—but I did scan it.
What was your initial reaction to the New York Times write-up about the report? Did anything strike you?
Well, I was surprised to learn it, because I actually hadn't thought that much about it, but it's a winner-take-all attitude that you see in other situations as well. As it unfolded, at some point it stopped surprising me. There are various legal teams and industries that, when they get into any type of dispute or crisis, they take a no-hostages point of view and go after it very aggressively.
The most famous example that I would be able to give you would be the tobacco companies back in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. When they had people suing them for tobacco-related illnesses, they were notorious for doing huge background investigations [that were] very detailed and aggressive into the backgrounds of these people to discredit them in any way they could. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars doing it, so this happens.
In your 33 years of business, what proportion of your investigations have involved investigating sexual assault or harassment accusers?
I can't really get into details about cases or what we do—we're private investigators and we are bound by our business and professions codes to protect our clients. We work for a number of plaintiff firms, and we have worked on cases where there's allegations of sexual harassment, but I couldn't go into any detail about that.
The New Yorker report states that Weinstein's enlisted firms were investigating journalists who were writing stories about him. How common is that in the field?
Not [common] in my experience, I was surprised to see that.
The use of false identities to extract information is a recurring theme in the report as well. To what extent do private-investigation firms use false identities to extract information?
When you're working undercover, you have some kind of assumed identity, it's called your "cover." You're presenting yourself as one person or another to gather information from people. Where [the report] surprised me and, in my opinion, is not something that we would endeavor, would be to go to the extent of posing as someone [when] you're involved with issues of public policy and with journalists. For me, there are certain things that I would consider crossing the line in terms of ethics.
I'll give you one example. There are some investigative firms that employ what are called "decoys" in matrimonial cases and so you'll get a request from someone, usually a female, and she'll ask us to send an attractive decoy agent to some bar or restaurant that the subject is known to frequent and attempt to see if they would be open to being involved in a relationship. We don't do that; I don't think that's particularly ethical. It's not illegal, but we draw an ethical line there. For us, we would not have done what that investigator did with [actress Rose McGowan]. I don't consider it ethical, but it's possible that it was legal.
Do you have an ethical code that you adhere to that is written down, or do you judge ethics on a case-by-case basis?
We don't have a particular ethical code laid out. It's a case-by-case basis.
You mentioned that a lot of your clients are at law firms. The New Yorker alleges that powerful clients often contract with investigation agencies through their lawyers, which invokes attorney-client privilege and keeps investigations out of the courts. Is that prevalent, in your experience?
Yeah, that's not an unusual situation or circumstance. We get asked to do that; sometimes we even suggest it. If someone is involved in some type of legal matter and they contact us independent of their attorney, we advise them to have that attorney engage us to maintain the confidentiality of the investigation. That's pretty par for the course.
Would those clients be powerful people with a lot of money in their pockets, or would those also include normal people who are involved in litigation?
It would be the latter. It could be somebody who's hired us, for instance, to do an asset investigation in a divorce case, or a domestic investigation. It's always preferable to have a lawyer involved. We like to have it not only for confidentiality, but then we also know that the attorney is going to be considering various legal issues, which need to be considered in terms of what's appropriate and what's not.
What would you say to readers who read this report and are concerned about ethical boundaries being breached? What would you say to them about how this article reflects or does not reflect on your field?
As private investigators, we have various guidelines that are included in [California's] business and professions code that pertains to doing private investigations. And we endeavor to always follow the law when we are engaged in investigations. Now, there are things that private investigators do that some people might look askance at, such as using pretexts to gain information from people, but these are legal and necessary things that you do to gain [information]. It's very similar to the spy trade, except it's in the private sector.
For us, specifically, gaming journalists would be something that I would never agree to do. I think that there are some institutions that deserve some level of protection and assumption of a public good that should not be undermined. Some people think that things that private investigators do are underhanded—for instance spying on people. We take the point of view that we're simply finding out what's going on in the world and reporting back to our clients. We're able to observe the world at a level of detail that is specific, and we're reporting what's going on in the world, and sometimes people don't take kindly to that, and sometimes it's unfortunate when people get caught doing things that they'd rather other people not know about. But that's the nature of a free and open society: Information is out there, and you can gain information on people in an open society, and I guess you have to say that, in the end, it can cut both ways.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.