More Unusual Background Checks – from Bernie Madoff to Knight Rider
By Kit Fremin
Several years ago, I called and spoke to a New York based magazine editor who was
listed as a personal reference for an applicant that we were doing a background check
on. While talking to her she told me that she thought that background checks were a
horrible invasion of one’s personal privacy and that she thought that they should be
outlawed. She couldn’t believe that her former assistant’s new prospective employer
would subject her to what was clearly an affront to her personal dignity.
Now, I enjoy a heated tête-à-tête as much as the next guy, especially with an intelligent
person who makes a living developing and expressing their thoughts in writing. I was up
to the challenge. This woman was the managing editor an in-flight magazine for one of
the major airlines (that no longer exists in its previous form) and as such, I assumed that
in addition to her writing and editing that she traveled frequently, so I asked her the
following question. “If you were staying in a hotel in a strange city wouldn’t it be
comforting to you to know that everyone that had access to your room had undergone a
criminal background check prior to being employed by the hotel?”
She asked, “Who would have access to my room?” “Managers, maids, janitors, security
personnel and other repair people potentially had master keys or keycards and could
access your room,” I replied. Her response was, “Well yes, those people should be
checked out, but not people like us.”
My reaction to what she said cannot be printed here. It started with smug,
sanctimonious bigot and quickly went downhill from there.
WHOM DO YOU TRUST?
Years ago, we were commissioned to do background checks on a bunch of nuns.
These nuns were the regular Catholic type nuns who were going to be working as
spiritual counselors at a chain of Catholic hospitals and, like any other prospective
employee of this organization they were subject to a criminal check as well as
verification of their previous employment and highest level of education. The irony of the
situation did not occur to me until I was on the phone with the Archbishop of Phoenix at
the time. Now, I don’t know about you, but if I had an applicant for a job that listed the
Archbishop of anywhere as a personal reference, I would assume that that person must
be pretty upstanding. Believing in background checks as much as I do, I still thought
that everybody needs to be checked out, no matter who they are and what horse they
rode in on. Then it dawned on me while talking to the Archbishop and verifying their
previous employment, that my client trusts me more than they trust a bunch of nuns. In
essence the sentiment was: they are not honest, trustworthy and eligible for
employment until I say that they are honest and trustworthy and eligible for employment.
I confess; I let it go to my head for a couple of weeks
As a rule, we don’t give advice. Our job is to research information and convey it to
whomever has employed me and my company. It is not our job to tell them what to do
with the information that we have conveyed. Furthermore, we make it a habit not to ask
clients what they are going to do with the information, say, on an applicant who is found
to have a criminal record. It is none of our business.
I took exception to this rule once when I reported to a long-term client who I knew on a
first name basis, that the applicant that I background checked for a job as an accountant
had, in fact been convicted of felony embezzlement and had served a short prison term.
When I told the client, verbally (we always call the client if the info is urgent) she told me
that she knew about his criminal record. To her, I said something on the order of, “Why
are you paying me to screen out criminals if you are going to hire them anyway?” My
client said, “He was such a nice young man and he interviewed well, and in fact, he was
very forthcoming about the problems in his past. And he won’t be handling money or
writing checks, but rather doing budgeting, projections and auditing.”
I told my client that I thought that this was a big mistake on her part and I would guess
that at some point he will be writing checks. I told her, “Mark my words; sooner or later
the person that writes checks is going to be out sick or on vacation, it may be next year
or the year after, but this guy will be writing checks.” She said, “You know, you’re
probably right. What should I do?” I advised her that if I were hiring a convicted felon
that I would tell him to have himself bonded at his own expense. “That way, I said, “If he
runs off with your money you only have to contact the bonding company and your
losses are covered. You don’t have to go looking for him hoping that he didn’t already
spend the money.”
I never asked the client what she did as a result of our conversation and the subject
never came up again. I do know this: the company went out of business a couple of
Then there was the time that we worked for Knight Ridder Newspapers, Inc. On the first
day handling the new account we had an employee that kept referring to them as Knight
Rider like the TV show of the 80s when she was making calls to verify employment. The
employee didn’t last long and sadly, neither did the client.
We did a background check on Bernie Madoff for an international hedge fund client in
1999. In January 2009 I received a call from this former client asking if we still had a
copy of the background check that we conducted on Mr. Madoff. I told him that we did
not; that as required by law, we kept the info for two years after which it was shredded.
In fact, we have been paperless since about 2004 and have no reports older than two
I told the client that I did not remember that we did a check on him (he was not famous
at the time), but I do remember in general that none of the people that we screened for
that client had any significant problems with regard to criminal history, civil court history
and potential SEC regulatory actions.
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking; that we did a pretty lousy job checking out
what was to be the world’s greatest con man and erstwhile investment manager. But
remember, this was 1999 and in fact we did a pretty thorough job based on what the
client ordered and was willing to pay for. We know now, that the first inkling that
something was amiss happened in 1999 when Harry Markopoulos, the whistle-blower in
the Madoff scandal, first made his case to the SEC. Note how long it took for the powers
that be to figure out that something is seriously wrong. In fact, the SEC’s initial reaction
to the 1999 revelation by Mr. Markopoulos was to get Madoff to register as an
investment adviser. Big deal!
The point of mentioning this at this time is that the Securities and Exchange
Commission oversight and reporting is a joke and always has been. I have known for
years that if someone wanted to check out their broker and they went to the SEC
website, they would not be told of any pending complaints or actions. A broker or
brokerage could have dozens of complaints against them, but the SEC does not release
information on complaints. They investigate (supposedly) the complaints and take
action as necessary. Information about those actions are made public upon completion
of the action. This should be a lesson to all of us.
Kit Fremin is the owner and founder of Background Check International. Since 1994 BCI has served
clients a varied as: the LA Times, Department of Defense, Mars, Inc., the UN, the NTSB and Calvary
Chapels nationwide. His website is: www.bcint.com and he can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or phoned
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