Private Eyeful

"Get the facts about anyone--your ex-spouse's hidden assets, a new client's credit history, your lover's secret past or information about any business--quickly and legally."
Hurry! This sounds like a job for one of the Clinton operatives investigating Kenneth Starr--and recently subpoenaed by the independent counsel as thanks for their efforts--or maybe crack local private eye Pete Peterson.

It's not. It's the description of Ed Pankau's "Be Your Own Detective" class offered Saturday morning through Colorado Free University, to be followed later in the afternoon by Ed Pankau's "Make $100,000 a Year as a Private Investigator."

Just what Colorado needs: more amateur sleuths following any politician rumored to have gotten cozy with anything larger than his pet canary, in hopes of getting a big score and bigger bucks. Even Peterson, the state's least-private private investigator, scoffs at the $100,000 reward. "I know I starved for the first four years, and I'm pretty motivated," he says, in the understatement of the year.

Thus far.
Pankau claims to have gotten a private eyeful of one of the state's most infamous politicians in flagrante: Gary Hart, whom Pankay says he videotaped with Monkey Business-partner Donna Rice on the 1987 spree that sank Hart's presidential aspirations. At least, that's what Pankau told the Washington Post back in 1992--an account disputed by the Miami Herald, which broke the Hart-Rice story. "I was the editor on the story," Herald associate editor for investigative reporting James Savage told the Wall Street Journal a few years ago. "I would have known."

But the Houston-based Pankau can't talk about that. "I'm under a confidentiality order not to discuss it," he says of the Hart surveillance. "I did the job, yes."

And Pankau had a job done on him back in 1994, when the Journal wrote about the lawsuit that led to that confidentiality order, a defamation case that Pankau filed in December 1993 against Robert Pack, who'd signed on to write the private investigator's autobiography. After spending six months researching his claims, Pack wrote Pankau, "I do not believe it is possible to produce a true, libel-free book about your career."

But in Colorado, the burden of proof is much lighter than in most states, Texas included.

That's because this remains one of a handful of states that does not license private eyes. Manicurists, sure, and hair-braiders--but not private investigators, no matter how much they make the local news. And lately, that's a lot.

Exhibits A, B and C: Peterson, the publicity-hound bloodhound who didn't stop reporters from crediting him with capturing--on videotape--Governor Roy Romer and former deputy chief of staff B.J. Thornberry in a clinch at a Dulles Airport parking lot back in 1995. And then Peterson revealed that back in 1990, Romer himself had authorized Peterson to conduct surveillance of Westword, when the paper was working on a story about Romer's relationship with Thornberry. (Eight years later, Romer would call that relationship "beautiful" but "not sexual.") And then, within a week of the six-minute smooch story breaking in Insight magazine, Peterson got slapped for allegedly bilking an elderly client out of $1,000. Was the arrest warrant part of a conspiracy? "I don't know," responds Peterson. "It sat there for months, and then a week after the governor's thing--bam!"

Last week, Denver prosecutors decided they would not file criminal charges against Peterson in connection with that case. The private investigator had armed himself for battle: Walter Gerash argued his case in court. "It was a very traumatic experience for him to be in jail," Gerash told a reporter. "His reputation as an investigator in the community was maligned." And Peterson also had a not-so-secret weapon: his resume, which, he says, includes a stint investigating incumbent Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter last year on behalf of challenger Craig Silverman.

"We found some interesting things," Peterson says, in that interesting way he has that tells you nothing. (For example, he's still promising to produce tapes he has around somewhere that document the governor authorizing Peterson to investigate Westword. "They don't know how much I have or don't have," he says of the Romer camp.) Ritter knew he was working for Silverman, Peterson says.

And then, Peterson adds, there was his role in helping to take down Denver District Judge Lynne Hufnagel, the only judge booted out of office in the November 1996 election. Hufnagel had presided over a long, complicated case in which Peterson was accused of burglary on behalf of a client. "We proved in court how we did it all," Peterson says. "We tricked people out of information--that's not breaking in."

But it's not exactly politic, which is why many local private investigators are up in arms over Peterson. But wait: Peterson's not done yet.

Before the cops nabbed him two weeks ago, Peterson says, the media was already on his tail--alerted by the police to the complaint by the elderly client that Peterson had taken $1,000 from her and failed to deliver. It was a "simple fee dispute," Peterson says. "She hated her daughter-in-law." He learned there was a warrant out for him from a reporter; other media types were "sneaking around my bushes, scaring my kids."

Hey! That's a PI's job!
"Walter's talking like we have some pretty good fodder for a lawsuit," continues the not-so-private Peterson. And are they thinking of filing one? "Oh, yes, are you kidding?"

But first, Peterson has other business to attend to. There's his appearance on NBC's Dateline, slated for maybe this Friday, maybe later, according to one of the show's producers. The segment was supposed to focus on private surveillance of public individuals, such as Romer, but what with Starr investigating the White House investigations of Starr, and Insight reportedly about to reveal who really took that surveillance tape of Romer, the news keeps changing.

Finally, there's the threat Peterson promised to make good on last week, when he vowed to post public officials' private addresses on the Web. "I told them, 'The rules are changing, guys,'" he says.

But in fact, there are no rules governing private investigators in Colorado--no rules beyond the same laws that govern all of us.

There's a professional organization, the Professional Private Investigators Association of Colorado, but that group "takes virtually anybody," says Peterson. "Anyone to swell the ranks. I resigned in protest over that." Instead, he got a PI's license in California five years ago. "In Los Angeles," he says, "they're professionals--held on a par with attorneys. I don't know if that's good or bad." Who does?

Periodically, someone tries to pass a bill that would require private investigators to be licensed. The most recent attempt was sponsored by state Senator MaryAnne Tebedo, and was tied to gun-licensing permits. "Everytime you would go down there," Peterson remembers, "someone in the PPIAC wouldn't like something about the bill, and they'd try to get it killed."

"It's funny," adds Pankau, who's come in for his own share of investigating. "I know there's been a lot of investigators from Colorado, but I can't believe they haven't gotten licensing."

There are two kinds of private investigators, he adds: "The real, smart, savvy people who run it as a business, and then there are the Jim Rockfords."

Make that four kinds. There are also the people who've taken Pankau's classes--over a hundred of whom have gone on to careers as private investigators, he says, while others have made such grisly discoveries as the Texas woman who learned her husband was a serial killer.

And then there's Pete Peterson.


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