The Case of the Missing License

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When the PPIAC shows up at the legislature to argue for licensing, Cinquanta is one of the ex-cops who lines up on the other side. He says that he has lots of friends in the association but that their concerns about P.I.s victimizing clients are overblown.

"When was the last time you heard of a private investigator doing something wrong?" he asks. "We do get fly-by-nights. It's aggravating. Sometimes they give us a bad rep because they do a bad job. But as a whole, this state has some great private eyes. You got some class guys here."

The pro-licensing camp responds that horror stories rarely become public because there's no place for bilked clients to go; some hired private eyes in the first place because their problem is too sensitive to take to court or the cops. "People who've been ripped off by private investigators don't usually talk about it much," says Cracraft.

Certainly, there's no lack of yarns about wildly wayward P.I.s in Colorado (see "Farewell, My Lowlife). But states that license P.I.s have their share of bad apples, too. Even California, the fabled land of Spade and Marlowe and Archer, has its rogue agents. The current buzz in Hollywood is over the sins of Anthony Pellicano, disgraced snoop to the stars, whose nuke-the-enemy attitude has triggered a federal investigation into wiretapping, racketeering and bribery allegations that has studio execs and top lawyers trembling.

Licensing, in other words, doesn't automatically purge a profession of the ethically challenged. "The idea that licensing is going to reduce scams is ludicrous," says Ryan Ross, a former Westword writer who's been working as an investigator for the past three years. "Look at how lawyers are regulated, and how many scam artists are in the bar. If you're going to be a crook, it doesn't matter how much training you get."

The PPIAC's Johnson says that licensing would at least give scam victims a way to track down and seek redress from the crooks; it would also provide background checks that should discourage career felons from getting into the business. When he worked as an investigator for the Denver district attorney, Johnson once helped put away a bail bondsman on eighty counts of forgery; a few years later, the same man had an ad in the Denver Yellow Pages advertising his services as a P.I.

As president of the association, he adds, "I receive a lot of complaints at my office about other private investigators. Money paid, no report issued, bad advice -- that kind of thing. There are a lot of private eyes out here who are pretty clueless, and they have no idea of the harm they can do to their clients.

"I would bet that most attorneys in this state don't realize that private investigators aren't licensed. They don't know that a lot of them don't carry liability insurance. Some investigators don't want to pay for insurance or a license. But if you can't afford a licensing fee, maybe you should find another line of work."

Cinquanta contends that licensing would encourage clients to make frivolous complaints and possibly compromise the confidential nature of his work. "It will force you to do business much differently to protect your ass," he says. "It's going to cost taxpayers or the P.I.s a lot of money to do business."

The former supercop has eleven employees, all former police officers. And, although his agency has never been sued, he's always carried insurance. "I have a million dollars' liability," he says. "I'd be scared to death not to have it."

"You admit you were there? You admit that Dalling was dead."

"I was there. He was dead."

"You didn't report it to us. We had to wait until the blood soaked through the floor and made a spot on the ceiling of the apartment underneath and somebody finally got around to noticing it. That wasn't smart of you, Archer, it wasn't cooperative, it wasn't even legal. It's the kind of thing that makes for license trouble." He leaned forward across the desk, his eyes jumping like blue Bunsen flames, and tossed me a change-of-pace: "Of course license trouble is the least of your worries."

-- Ross Macdonald, The Way Some People Die

The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies is currently conducting what's known as a "sunrise review" of the PPIAC's licensing proposal to determine whether to recommend legislation. The primary consideration is whether allowing investigators to operate unlicensed endangers the public, says Bruce Harrelson, director of DORA's office of policy research and regulatory reform. Harrelson expects to make a report to the General Assembly this fall.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast