Last week I heard an NPR interview with former New York Times reporter and current executive editor for Bloomberg View Timothy O’Brien. O’Brien has written extensively on president-elect Donald Trump’s background and business deals and also has seen something that few others have, but that many in his industry would love to get their hands on: Trump’s income tax returns.

When the interviewer on NPR asked how O’Brien got to be one of the few journalists in the country to see Trump’s tax returns, the answer was simple, but interesting: a lawsuit. In 2006, Trump sued O’Brien for libel after O’Brien claimed in his 2005 book “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald” that Trump was greatly exaggerating his wealth. As part of that suit, O’Brien’s legal team was able to view financial and business records for Trump along with his tax returns. These records have since been sealed and although O’Brien stated in the interview that he can discuss the returns in general terms, he stated he cannot speak specifically to them, although the suit was dropped.

Civil Records Can Be a Treasure Trove of Information

Putting politics aside, this interview shed light on something we often discuss with our clients when we recommend conducting a background investigation or asset search for a subject of interest. That is, lawsuits hold all sorts of valuable information that often cannot be found in the public record, and that is why it is so important to take a look at court filings and documents when thoroughly vetting an individual.

Along with a copy of an individual’s tax returns, we have found other valuable information for our clients while reviewing civil litigation in our day-to-day work at Hillard Heintze. Some of the information we’ve seen included specifics about an individual’s bank account; allegations of sexual harassment; workplace violence issues; details about one’s past psychotic symptoms and mental health treatment; allegations of one adult holding another hostage during a domestic dispute; threats against a U.S. congressman; the ownership structure of a company that could not otherwise be found in corporate filings, and other important financial information that often helps our clients make educated decisions about who they should do business with or potentially sue.

Avoid Skipping Civil Records Searches

The moral of this is not that if you want to see someone’s tax returns just give them a reason to sue you, but instead that you truly never know what you will find when you start going through the docket and underlying documents from litigation. That is why we always recommend examining available court filings to ensure you are not missing potentially vital information about a person’s financial, professional or personal background. For all you know the otherwise non-public records information that you need may just be hiding in a lawsuit for you.

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