It started on November 9, 2017 when a woman sent a cryptic email to reporters at The Washington Post regarding the recent sexual assault allegations against Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. In it, she stated, “I might know something” and later claimed Moore impregnated her when she was 15 years old. Fast forward nearly three weeks and that woman, Jaime Phillips, is now front page news. But not in the way she had originally intended.
Phillips, the Post discovered, works for Project Veritas, a political group that uses deceptive tactics to embarrass traditionally liberal-leaning organizations, as well as news outlets and journalists. Her initial email and subsequent interviews with the paper had been an elaborate ruse to try to get reporters to reveal a liberal bias against the Republican Party on camera. Instead, the reporters did their due diligence, dug a little deeper into this mysterious woman’s claims and revealed the truth.
In this fascinating article, Post reporters describe how they uncovered the scheme, utilizing many of the same types of clues we at Hillard Heintze use to verify facts, learn more about persons of interest and help our clients make better informed decisions.
Noticing Cracks in the Story
As the reporters began researching Phillips’ story — in which she allegedly lived in Alabama for only one summer — they soon realized her phone number had an Alabama area code. Furthermore, her email address included “rolltide,” the rallying cry of the University of Alabama’s sports teams, nicknamed the Crimson Tide. As the reporters note: “For someone who spent only a short time in Alabama — and claimed to have experienced what would seem to be a traumatic event during that short time — the woman sure seemed fond of the state, so much so that she rooted for its college sports teams and obtained an area code from the state.”
At Hillard Heintze, we also use individuals’ phone numbers and email addresses to learn more about their address and professional histories. Email addresses can often reveal one’s current or previous employment, an undisclosed business or, in this case, one’s personal interests, which raised some red flags about this woman’s claims.
Verifying the Details
The reporters continued to look into Phillips’ past by calling her supposed workplace to confirm her employment. Phillips told the Post she worked at NFM Lending in Westchester County, New York, but when the reporters called the company, they discovered she did not, in fact, work there.
In addition, the reporters confronted her about a webpage they found on which Phillips wrote she was going to work “in the conservative media movement to combat the lies and deceit of the liberal [mainstream media].” Phillips told them she had interviewed at the conservative Daily Caller with a woman named Kathy Johnson. The reporters called the publication and learned that Phillips had fabricated not only the interview but her contact there as well.
Verifying an individual’s current and past employment claims is often a part of the due diligence background investigations and reputational profiling work we do. Ensuring individuals have the experience and skills they publicly say they do is critical for clients who are considering acquiring a business and retaining its management team, hiring a new employee or selecting a new executive, board member or advisor. Likewise, uncovering an unreported past work experience – perhaps one that the subject wishes to remain hidden for one reason or another – may also provide important information for our clients.
Reviewing Her Online Presence
During their preliminary online research into Phillips, the reporters discovered a GoFundMe account under the name “Jaime Phillips” seeking money for her relocation to New York to work in conservative media. The reporters noted that one of the donors on the webpage matched the name of Phillips’ daughter, further reinforcing their suspicions that this was their source.
Being an investigator means recognizing important clues that are often hidden in plain sight. A basic Google search can uncover useful information about an individual, such as what the team at the Post found about Phillips. But a Google search is never enough.
Hillard Heintze investigators use their expertise in public records, court, press and social media research, among other areas, to reverse-engineer an important fact, leading not only from point A to point B but sometimes from point B to point A.
Seeing the Full Picture
It has become more critical than ever, in today’s world of “fake news,” to have a discerning eye for truth. While studying investigative journalism at Northwestern University, I was taught to question and confirm everything a source said. It was critical to consider all angles of a story, as well as sources’ ulterior motives, including personal and/or professional incentives to share this particular story, at this particular time. These days, even non-journalists need to take this approach, to dig deeper to understand not only what a story says, but who is telling it and why.
As Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron put it: “Because of our journalistic rigor, we weren’t fooled.” I would argue it wasn’t necessarily “journalistic” rigor, but rather, investigative. The reporters questioned and researched everything until it was confirmed, true or false, which remains a guiding principle for the investigative team at Hillard Heintze.