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Research a candidate's background with these pro tips

Don't be surprised! Check a candidate's background with these private investigator tips.

It happens every election cycle: some piece of information from a candidate's past is revealed, damaging their chances of winning and changing the outcome of an election. An embarrassing photo, a careless college social media post, membership in an unpopular organization, shady financial connections... Do your homework. Check their background.

Pickering Sullivan Investigations is a private investigations firm that works with campaigns and consultants nationwide on opposition research as well as candidate background screening. Here are some of their background research tips.

General background check

Sites such as Intelius and TruthFinder are among many "free" background check websites, which charge fees to receive information. These websites are fine for general, unverified information such as current and former residences, household members, etc. These sites claim have all types of criminal records and more, but the sites are really designed to help online daters screen potential Romeos, so don't expect to learn much more than your opposition's actual age and whether he's secretly living with his mother. Also note, much of the information is out of date or incorrect, as there is no verification of the information or the source from which it has been gathered. Nevertheless, it's a low-cost way to at least establish residency, uncover any major criminal cases and start a dossier. 

Campaign contributions

Start with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Browse "all filings" for the subject's name (either as candidate or donor). Look for contributors to certain candidates that show up consistently and/or in large amounts --and also look at what campaigns the candidates are contributing to. Hint: you won't find the KKK contributing to your opposition. But a registered PI has the tools and access to be able to run all the contributors to a campaign against other known aliases, to reveal who or what groups/companies might actually be behind that steady stream of random donations between $50-$150. You'll find the same information for state and county elections for most states at that state’s  Secretary of State website.

Have they been an officer of a corporation?

Search Open Corporates. Where do their interests lie?Have they been a director or officer of a company in a questionable industry? You'll find this at the Secretary of State website for each individual state or on (incomplete, but a good place to find out what states a candidate might have interests in). Some states allow you to run this by officer name, others you'll need to know the name of the corporation for the search.

Federal cases? Criminal or civil cases? Bankruptcies?

Check Pacer. You'll find a nominal fee for searching nationwide data on cases involving entities of interest, with some federal district court cases going back to the 1980's. Undisclosed bankruptcy from 1992? Named in a RICO case in 1987? Many individuals assume their background fades as time passes, and politicians are no exception. This site can help bring the past to light.

Check their education

Check Degree Verify. You'd be shocked how many people exaggerate or outright lie about their education. Some detail that got picked up in a fluff media piece 30 years ago got carried along and is now part of their public profile. Finding out that they weren't actually a linebacker for that university in Florida, didn't actually receive that MBA from Wharton or didn't even attend that university in Lucerne, Switzerland could be a major impact on an opposition candidate.

What's in their past?

Use the Wayback machine which allows users to find online content dating back to...the beginning of the internet. You can find old material that doesn't show up in Google searches. You'll need to search by publication, by date--unfortunately no keyword search tool here.

Hire a professional investigator

If you've done all this and want more (and Googled your heart out), a licensed private investigator can help. They have access to databases that require a professional license. They can get into litigation at the state level, deep social media, dark web (including emails you didn't know exist), employment verifications, liens, assets, judgements and financial records, social affiliations and more. How much is the mortgage on their house? Is it owned by the candidate or some shadowy corporation? Is there a local newspaper mention from the '70s your opposition would like to forget?

As valuable as it is to uncover information on the opposition, it can be equally important to do a deep background on your own candidate. After all, politicians are human. They want to present their best face--especially to the folks supporting their campaign. Leading to a tendency to gloss over things during that "tell me everything" private debrief you had. A thorough background check by a private investigator such as Pickering Sullivan Investigations will reveal anything to you that your opposition might uncover later, giving you a chance to address it upfront and avoid being surprised mid-campaign.

Private investigators are affordable and worth the investment considering how much you'll spend on a campaign.

TakeAway: Do you background research on your opponent and your own candidate.


Image credit: House of Cards / Netflix

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DemLabs applies innovative technology and storytelling tools in service of democratic values. It lowers the barrier of funding for worthy candidates and non-profits by applying existing free/affordable solutions.