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On the Trail of Assets : Old-Fashioned Legwork, Looking Through Trash and Cruising the Internet All Are Ways Investigators Track Down Hidden Wealth

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They pick through trash, poke through mail and tap into sophisticated computer databases in search of the elusive money trail.

When it comes to tracking down the soon-to-be ex-husband’s secret nest egg, a business executive’s embezzled loot or a fallen dictator’s offshore bank accounts, private investigators employ methods both mundane and cutting-edge to find hidden assets.

Some may rely on less scrupulous tactics. Or, as local gumshoe John J. Nazarian put it, success depends on two things: “How much you want to spend and how you want to play the game.”

The game is played by private detectives, lawyers and forensic accountants who specialize in ferreting out the hidden assets of the wealthy and the ne’er-do-wells. They pore over public documents, surf the Internet and pull all-night stakeouts to catch people driving cars they said they didn’t own, sleeping in homes they claimed they didn’t buy and depositing cash in bank accounts they swore they didn’t hold.

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Relatives of murder victim Ronald Lyle Goldman retained the services of Kroll Associates--one of the world’s largest investigative firms--to help them determine O.J. Simpson’s net worth and bolster their chances of collecting the proceeds from their wrongful death civil award.

Tracking down assets is “one of the hardest types of investigations we do,” said Stephen Vale, managing director of Kroll’s Los Angeles office, who declined to discuss the Simpson investigation. “It can be very speculative. A lot of times the client is throwing good money after bad.”

But when the stakes are high enough, it can be worth it.

By following paper trails and conducting extensive interviews, Kroll helped the government of Haiti find millions of dollars taken by former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in banks in New York, London, Luxembourg, Paris and Geneva.

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The firm also helped the House Foreign Affairs Committee locate millions of dollars of assets concealed by former Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda; the government of Kuwait locate the private reserves of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and the government of Russia trace extensive capital that had been diverted out of the country by officials of the former Soviet Union.

Such searches are extremely difficult in a world in which electronic transfers send large sums of money from bank to bank and country to country in the blink of an eye. Additionally, there are privacy laws that prevent investigators from accessing certain credit reports and bank statements without proper court authority.

“There is no magic button we can push on a computer to get the information,” said John Talaganis, president of the California Assn. of Licensed Investigators. “Assets searches take a lot of background work.”

Finding hidden assets requires a deep knowledge of how to access public information such as property records, business filings, voter registration forms, birth certificates, marriage licenses, divorce lawsuits and tax liens.

The wealthier a person is, the more complicated the asset diversions can be. A money trail can be significantly muddled if a person has the ability to hire the right tax consultants, lawyers and even private investigators who specialize in finding the assets.

In the Marcos case, bank accounts and properties were owned by complicated front corporations that were based in various parts of the world with corporate officers who were secret associates of the dictator.

“There are a lot of dead-ends in these type of things,” Vale said. “Public records differ from country to country.”

For Kroll investigator Dan Karson, a $5 vehicle record search of a debtor he was pursuing produced a multimillion-dollar find. Through the search, Carson turned up a snowmobile registered to the debtor at a previously unknown estate in upstate New York worth several million dollars. Carson’s client was able to seize that property for repayment of the debt.

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But public records can go only so far. Much of the time it takes good old-fashioned sleuthing straight from the Sam Spade school of investigating. And while computer databases are handy, sometimes the everyday trash can, the well-placed contact or the crisp C-note in somebody’s palm yields the best clue.

Private eye Don Crutchfield said he “procured” private banking records that helped him find a Saudi man who had made off with a large sum of a sheik’s money. The bank records showed that the man had opened a one-hour photo shop in the San Fernando Valley with money he had taken from the sheik.

“You don’t mess with a sheik’s money,” Crutchfield said. “I imagine the guy’s buried in the desert somewhere.”

Investigator Vale, a lawyer by training, said he once traced a local wedding announcement in a newspaper to a debtor’s secret business partnership. The article provided him with names of friends of the debtor, which in turn, led to the discovery of the partnership through public corporation records.

No matter how savvy an investigator is, there are ways to conceal your assets, said Ralph Thomas, director of the National Assn. of Investigative Specialists, based in Austin, Texas.

“If I got all my assets in cash and I put them in a shoe box and went somewhere and buried it, who’s going to find it?” he said.

Such is the concern of people like the Goldmans who fear that they will never be able to collect their judgments because money is hidden.

Several investigators said they would be particularly concerned about Simpson’s recent excursions to Europe, where secret accounts could have been opened, and to Florida, which has more favorable laws than California for debtors who own property.

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Simpson attorney Leroy “Skip” Taft has testified under oath that Simpson never transferred assets overseas.

Some skeptical private eyes are not convinced.

“I would have been tailing [Simpson] months ago if it were my case. I would have been watching his every move,” said one investigator. “And another thing, I would have been kissing the asses of the trash truck guys, that’s for sure.”


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