Undermining An Internal Investigation: Lack Of Impartial Investigator

by Michael Volkov

investigation5Today we have a guest post from Lauren Connell, Managing Associate from The Volkov Law Group.  Her profile is here.

As anyone in the compliance field knows, one of the cardinal rules of internal investigations is impartiality. The people conducting an internal investigation need to be independent, not beholden to anyone involved in the matter.

One of the essential steps you take in an investigation is conducting interviews with the people involved.  Documents can’t lie but they also can’t talk.  Asking people questions and looking them in the eye while they respond (or avoid your eye contact) is invaluable.  You get information from people that you can’t get anywhere else.

Interviews are so important because most people are terrible liars. Yes, some people can hold it together and fake it for a while, but when pressed you can bet that the pauses get a little too long or that eye contact starts to falter.  Maybe someone all the sudden starts to take an unusual interest in their shoes – all these are clues that people give off when they lie.  An internal investigator’s job is to recognize these signs and ask the tough questions.

If you know someone, especially if you consider them a friend, you are less likely to ask the tough questions. It is so important for interviewers to be impartial because they can’t do their job unless they are, no matter how hard they try.  It is human nature to treat those you know differently, whether you want to or not.  When you don’t want something to be true you will pursue it with less vigor.investigation

I was surprised to see this rookie mistake was made recently in a highly publicized investigation.  As you may have heard, NJ Governor Chris Christie has been in hot water lately for what has become known as “Bridgegate.”  He hired a large, white-shoe law firm to conduct an internal investigation and guess who was assigned to conduct interviews: a partner at the law firm who is a close friend of Governor Christie.

The report found that Gov. Christie didn’t help orchestrate the lane closures or try and cover them up. The legislative committee investigating the matter is not convinced.

Co-leader of the committee John Wisniewski said “The inclusion of [the law firm partner] on the team of attorneys doing the internal investigation for Gov. Christie raises serious questions about whether it really is a serious investigation being conducted, she is hardly an objective and unbiased investigator.”

investigation2Of course no one is going to believe the report’s conclusions.  No matter how thorough or unforgiving the investigation was it simply cannot recover from the taint of lack of impartiality.

Instead, a lot of money was spent to issue a report no one is going to take seriously.  By breaking the cardinal rule of impartiality, the entire report and all the expensive, hard work done by the team of attorneys conducting the investigation is thrown into question.  Don’t make the same mistake; cardinal rules are cardinal rules for a reason.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Michael Volkov, The Volkov Law Group | Attorney Advertising

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Michael Volkov

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