Rich People and Their Private Armies

Ezra Klein writes about the glee that Wall Street is expressing today over the Spitzer scandal and states:

The traders and the executives can hardly contain their glee, which really, really makes me want to see Spitzer survive. But it also underscores the idiocy of his actions. Corporate titans have lots of money and, presumably, lots of private investigators. It’s a bit bizarre that this was discovered by the Feds rather than used as leverage by an executive Spitzer wanted to regulate. I almost guarantee that the next politician to go against corporate America won’t be so lucky.

I honestly don’t know enough about Spitzer’s work in the area of white collar crime to comment on whether this Schadenfreude is justified or not. That said, I do have to honestly say that there seems to be some fervent belief in the American populace, both right and left, that the ultra-rich have armies of private investigators and thugs that they use to do their bidding to “intimidate their enemies.”

Here’s the thing about that–is this really a prevalent phenomonon outside of bad airport paperbacks or organized crime? This I ask of you, oh powerful communal brain that is the internet. Are there any examples of ultra-rich folks using P.I.’s to dig up dirt so that they can blackmail government officials? Inquiring minds truly want to know.

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Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I’ve known a number of the ultra-rich over the years and I’ve never known any of them to employ private detectives. Maybe it’s a New York thing 😉

  2. Ugh says:

    Well, there was the whole HP scandal where they were using PIs to try to find out who was leaking things from board meetings. Not politicians but certainly an example of corporate titans having “lots of private investigators” to go around doing not-so-kosher things.

  3. Alex Knapp says:


    I forgot about the HP deal. Still, I think that finding the source of a leak isn’t in the same league as digging up dirt for blackmail.

  4. Triumph says:

    Are there any examples of ultra-rich folks using P.I.’s to dig up dirt so that they can blackmail government officials? Inquiring minds truly want to know.

    This isn’t in the “governmental official” realm, but General Motors hired a private eye in the 60s to dig up dirt on Ralph Nader whilst he was publishing articles and books on auto safety issues.

  5. yetanotherjohn says:

    I remember one case from law school. The case was on the theft of trade secrets. A factory had it’s roof off (I forget why, storm damage, building, whatever) and these two guys flew over taking pictures. Apparently an expert could determine part of the “secret formula” involved by examining the routing of the lines and equipment in the building. The case hinged on whether this rose to the level of a theft of trade secrets (where the secrets being kept from public access, etc).

    The two guys never ratted on their employer even though they lost their PI license and had to do a couple of years for the ‘theft’. So maybe the rich can afford guys who keep their mouth shut, so thats why we don’t hear about it.

    I also remember when we were trying to get our hands on a competitor’s chip for comparative analysis. Through a couple of intermediaries we were hooked up with someone who had a “shadowy past”. It was hinted but never said he was ex-KGB or Stasi or something. The guys basic pitch was that for $5000 he would get the chip no questions asked. While we were trying to decide if it was really worth that much money, one of our field application engineers got one at the cost of a nice dinner from a customer. Does that count? By the way, I am in no way the super rich, but when this was going on I was working for a fortune 500 company which corporately could have counted as the super rich.

  6. mike says:

    There is a criminal case against Pellicano in LA, CA involving a PI who would spy on wives/spouses of the very wealthy or on prominent people involved in the entertainment industry for purposes of future trials/blackmail etc… Drudge carried an article about the case b/c it involves potentially 100s of famous/wealthy folks. From an article from CNN:

    Prosecutors said he obtained confidential information that could be used to gain advantage in divorce, business and other cases.

  7. floyd says:

    Anybody else see the way CNN handled the Spitzer news last night? That’s right…. a ten minute report on Republican and Evangelist peccadilloes, some dating back to the early eighties!
    No bias there! Or was it just typical adolescent rationalization?
    At least he hasn’t yet been accused of assigning a state policeman to be his procurement officer, like a certain former Arkansas governor!

  8. dave says:

    There really wasn’t any blackmail, but Richard Mellon Scaife among many other very rich individuals on the right spent a great deal of money (what would be a great deal of money to me) on investigations of Bill Clinton in the early-mid 90s…

  9. legion says:

    One of my dad’s closer friends was pretty bloody rich; he didn’t do much of the PI stuff, but his (equally-wealthy) family members’ main hobby was basically suing each other for utterly random things. To each his own, I guess…

  10. “I almost guarantee that the next politician to go against corporate America won’t be so lucky.”

    Ok, so Ezra Klein is a conspiracy nut. Why do you take stuff like this seriously?

  11. Tlaloc says:

    William Randolph Hearst?

  12. legion says:

    William Randolph Hearst?

    Yeah, and didn’t Henry Ford have a downright creepy level of interest in the personal & home lives of his workers, too? I guess when you’ve got more money than you know what to do with, you find things to do with it…

  13. Tlaloc says:

    Tobacco industry has a pretty scary history with regards to whistleblowers.