For over a decade Kevin Cosgrove, a licensed private investigator and Certified Fraud Examiner, has conducted more than 1,000 investigative interviews of cooperating witnesses, industry experts, and government officials with support of corporate fraud allegations for the law firm of Kaplan Fox & Kilsheimer, LLP based in New York City.
Kevin recently sat down with us to discuss the importance of investigative interviews, as well as some of his methodologies, preparation techniques and tips.
Given the nature of the types of cases you work, the vast majority of the interviews you conduct are initially performed by telephone. Interviewing people in-person has its obvious advantages, but time and budget restraints do not always allow for it. I would argue that in many situations, telephone interviewing is equally or more effective than interviewing a person face-to-face. Do you agree with that statement? What are some positives and negatives of conducting interviews by telephone?
Yes, given the scope of the subject matter as well as the geographical landscape of the cases we litigate, it is certainly more feasible to conduct our initial contacts with the subjects via telephone. Typically, the individuals we contact are suspected eyewitnesses to overt acts such as securities fraud and anti-competitive practices within the confines of their former employer. In many cases, these people may have left their employer due to feelings of pressure by their superiors to engage in or ignore a crime being committed.
My initial contact with most witnesses is generally used to exchange information and develop a solid rapport with the subject. Contrary to what people may witness on television dramas, most people are generally more comfortable and willing to speak frankly when they are in the confines of their own environment and talking into a telephone.
On the flip-side however, I have had many occasions where a potential witness requests a face-to-face meeting before providing any substantive information. Ultimately, the goal is to build trust with the potential witness and allow him/her to be comfortable enough to share their observations truthfully and willingly.
Do you typically draft a series of questions or talking points prior to conducting your interviews? How closely do you follow it?
Rather than following a script, I believe it is more important to cover certain areas or specific events. The cases we litigate involve complex frauds at the highest of levels within an organization. Ample preparation to any interview is critical towards meeting your goals and hopefully attaining the objectives with the witness. On most occasions, I will generally take note of the suspected key players, timeframe, internal organization, and the nature of the respective business.
Whether it is a mid-sized widget manufacturer who is alleged to have been stuffing customer channels with product at the end of every quarter or a large conglomerate whose executives have been dragging their feet on informing their shareholders on product delays or subpar sales, my goal is to educate myself first on the business model and the individuals involved, so that the conversation flows more consistently and does not get chopped with stop and go direct questions.
Of course, there are occasions where specific dates or facts need to be addressed whether initially or on a follow-up interview.
Common sense suggests that it’s best to call people at home at night, when they are available to talk, but I have found that calling people at work or on their cell phone is equally or more successful. When do you think is the best time to contact people?
I believe that regardless of the time of day, the “surprise effect” of the initial contact can be a positive or negative for everyone.
For example, did you happen to connect with the witness just after he/she may have received a traffic ticket, had an argument with their spouse, or just got home after another stressful day? Chances are slim that this individual will be willing to cooperate at this time.
Barring any timing issues or potential conflicts, some individuals may be intrigued by the inquiry and may possibly stop what they are doing at the moment to immediately engage in a discussion with you. General rule of thumb is to attempt contact at different points of the day and leave messages when appropriate.
At some point, it may be critical to ask the interviewee some follow up questions, ask them to sign a statement or cooperate further. How do you leave the door open for further contact?
If there is one thing I have learned in my many years of speaking with people, it is that there is always something else to ask or learn more about. As I mentioned, the interviews we conduct are seeking very specific facts and oftentimes the subject does not recall specific dates, names or places.
As with any relationship, it is always best to exchange information and keep the lines of communication open on both ends moving forward. My rule of thumb with this is to typically determine up-front the subject’s best numbers and times to further chat should something develop on either side.
One question that I always ask during any interview is “Who else should I talk to?” What is the one question that you think is critical to ask anyone who you interview?
That is certainly an important one to ask as it is usually someone who can corroborate that person’s information or potentially lead you up to a higher level within the organization and provide more specific details.
In my line of work however, there are numerous legal and ethical procedural rules which need to be followed in every interview I conduct. Before diving into any substantive conversation with a potential witness, we need to first establish that the individual is not represented by an attorney and is no longer bound by any form of agreement with their former employer.
Another important question is to try and determine why the person is providing the information…i.e. are they ethically moral people, disgruntled, have an ax to grind against someone, etc. Knowing why someone voluntarily provides information can further help you or your client determine the credibility of the information moving forward.
In some instances, you may have only one shot to interview someone. Do you think it’s critical to get every detail in the initial call?
Absolutely (but not possible). The old saying “you may only have one bite of the apple” also applies to conducting interviews for many reasons. Maybe the person had a change of heart, were instructed afterwards by someone they trust not to further cooperate, or just don’t have the time to commit to the investigation, there are numerous reasons why a person ceases to cooperate after the initial interview.
Knowing that, it is always best to try and obtain as much information as possible up-front and assume that you may never speak with them again down the road. On the flip-side however, I prefer utilizing only the information from sources who can help me see the case through until the end. I typically gauge most potential witnesses at the onset of the relationship to determine whether this person will help me push the car over the hill or just halfway up and walk away.
You typically have specific issues that you want to cover when conducting an interview, but people tend to wander from the discussion. Do you allow witnesses to talk about anything, or do you interrupt them and try to guide them in the right direction?
Great question. It is certainly important for the sake of our relationship to allow witnesses to share with me anything which they feel is important or needing to get off their chest.
However, it is equally important to encourage the person to stay on track with the subject matter at hand. You certainly do not want to upset the person with constant interruptions or directions, though you also don’t want to fall short on time if you are not able to address the key events.
Depending on where the conversation is headed, I typically try to balance the conversation with both sides of the coin and gently nudge them back to the issues when needed.
While not every person you talk to is going to provide you the information you are looking for, every interview you conduct can provide at least some piece of information that can help your case. Do you agree or disagree with that statement?
Assuming you are going after the “right” people, I agree that we can learn at least one thing from every witness even those who won’t talk. For example, in cases where we suspect that a former manager was knee-deep in the alleged fraud and has been identified by others as a person of knowledge, but is evasive and declines to be interviewed voluntarily, it is generally a good indication that our other sources are credible and allows me to better focus on that area or individual.
It never ceases to surprise me that people will actually talk. Calling someone out of the blue can be uncomfortable to the person on the other end. Are you surprised that people talk to you? Why do you think people talk?
I can’t say I am surprised anymore, but pleased they do. I have tremendous respect for anyone with solid morals and an interest to assist our investigations. I hold a sign above my desk which reads, “Everyday observations by ordinary people can correct injustices.”
Regardless of the subject matter or demographics, people are people and will be more forthcoming and interested in the case if you are honest and understanding to their own concerns.
What would be the one piece of advice that you would offer an Investigator who is new to the interviewing aspect of our work?
Be a good listener and take solid notes. Contrary to what we see on television dramas or police interrogations on reality shows, we utilize investigative interviews as one of our many tools to obtain information to help us reach our case objectives.
Unlike investigative databases or online resources, the information which we develop during our interviews is generally non-public in nature and must be obtained through legal and ethical means to be fruitful to the client. Focus less on the agenda and more on the person. In the end, you are simply having a conversation to (hopefully) learn something you did not know before.