Corporate Research E-Letter No. 15, August 2001
Footprints of the Rich and Famous:
A Guide to Backgrounding Individual Executives and Directors
by Philip Mattera
The New York Times recently published a front-page story about a controversy surrounding a new website that made New York City voter registration records--including home addresses--freely available. Although such information had previously been accessible offline, the fact that it was now on the web was said to be alarming to individuals--such as battered wives hiding from their abusers or celebrities trying to avoid stalkers--who needed to keep their home address a secret. The Times article itself intensified the criticism of the site, and within a day its creator removed the home-address feature.
Such developments are heartening to privacy proponents, but restrictions on public records are not good news for researchers trying to gather information on individuals for legitimate purposes. The Corporate Research E-Letter is usually devoted to information on companies and industries, but researching corporations also involves researching key individuals associated with those businesses, especially Top executives and members of the board of directors. This issue of the E-Letter will review the types of information that are still available and how to access the data.
General biographical information
If the subject of your research is sufficiently prominent, he or she may be included in Who's Who in America or one of the regional or industry-specific Who's Who volumes. Don’t assume that only businesspeople at the level of Rupert Murdoch or Donald Trump are included. Many executives who are not household names turn up in one or another of the volumes. The entries vary greatly in the amount of detail, but they all contain at least some basic information about the person’s career and affiliations. Given that the content is supplied by the subject, there may be embellishments or significant omissions, yet in some cases the person divulges data such as home address and phone number. Sometimes the most useful information is the person’s date of birth, which can help in tracking the individual in public-record databases. The Who’s Who volumes can generally be found in the reference section of a good library. Much of the content is also available online via services such as Lexis-Nexis or Dialog, which allow searching of past as well as current editions of the works. Some libraries also have an electronic service called the Biography Resource Center, which brings together information from a variety of reference works.
It is also essential to do a general search for newspaper and magazine articles that have been published on your subject. This process is vastly simplified by the existence of vast full-text archives on commercial services such as Lexis-Nexis, Dow Jones Interactive and Dialog or websites such as Northern Light. If you prefer to do things the old-fashioned way, your library probably has a set of print volumes called Biography Index. For very rich subjects, be sure your search covers the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans and lists of billionaires published by Forbes and Fortune magazines. Finally, be sure to check the website of the subject’s company for a bio.
Corporate and philanthropic affiliations
One of the key things you will want to figure out for any businessperson are the other companies or organizations with which he or she is affiliated. To determine whether someone is an officer or director of a publicly-traded company (i.e. one whose shares trade in a stock market) you can search the EDGAR online archive of filings submitted to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Free-text searches of EDGAR can be done via websites such as Free Edgar <www.freeedgar.com> or 10-K Wizard <www.tenkwizard.com>. Edgar Online <www.edgar-online.com/people/> has a handy site that allows you to search for mentions of an individual’s name in proxy statements--documents that are sent to shareholders in preparation for annual meetings and that contain biographical information on board members. Note that the proxy statement, sometimes referred to as DEF 14A, is also the source for detailed compensation data on the five highest-paid executives of a publicly traded company as well as data on stock ownership by executives and directors and any individuals with holdings of five percent or more.
For corporate affiliations you can also consult biographical directories such as the Standard & Poor's Register of Corporations, Directors and Executives, which is available in print form at many libraries or in electronic form on Lexis-Nexis. In a good business library you will also find regional print sources such as the Directory of Directors in the City of New York.
Privately-held companies: The Standard & Poor's Register includes larger privately held companies, but to do a thorough search, the best approach is to consult the database of Dun & Bradstreet, which collects information on millions of companies, even very small ones. D&B information is available via direct online subscriptions with the company or via vendors such as Lexis-Nexis.
State corporate records: Every corporation--public or private, for-profit or non-profit--must be chartered by a state government, and some states require companies to divulge the names of their officers and directors. Services such as Lexis-Nexis collect this information and put it in one big database that can be searched for the names of individuals. Some states have put their corporate records on the web. To locate which ones have, look at the website of the state’s Secretary of State or consult the list compiled by BRB Publications at <www.brbpub.com/pubrecsites.asp>.
Non-profit affiliations: Philanthropic and other non-profit affiliations can be found in a person's Who's Who entry or sometimes on the biographical information provided on directors in the proxy statements of publicly-traded companies. If these sources aren't available for the person you are investigating, you can try the index of the Nonprofit Sector Yellow Book published by Leadership Directories Inc., which lists the names of trustees of larger foundations, universities, hospitals and cultural institutions. Leadership Directories also publishes other volumes such as the Corporate Yellow Book and Financial Yellow Book.
Vital records and home addresses
Most local governments have not put birth, marriage and divorce records on the web, so you have to request the information in person or by mail. Those jurisdictions that have posted these records online can be found by consulting the BRB Publications site at <www.brbpub.com/pubrecsites.asp>. Information on dead people--including Social Security number and last known residence--is easier to locate, thanks to the Social Security Administration’s Death Index, which can be accessed for free at the Ancestry.com website <www.ancestry.com/search/rectype/vital/ssdi/main.htm>.
Despite the incident in New York City, voter registration records, including home addresses, for numerous states are still available online via services such as Lexis-Nexis.
Another way to track down home addresses, as well as information on a person’s standard of living, is to consult property records compiled by local government agencies known as Recorder of Deeds or similar names. This data can be accessed at the agency’s offices or online via commercial subscription services such as Lexis-Nexis or pay-as-you-go services such as KnowX <www.knowx.com>, which also sells access to a variety of other public records on individuals and companies. Note that not all jurisdictions have put their property records online.
If you want to know whether an individual has had legal problems of one sort or another, there are several places to go. To find out if the person is a party in a current federal criminal or civil action, or if the person has been involved in a bankruptcy case, you can search the dockets of federal courts (for a modest fee) via the PACER service <pacer.psc.uscourts.gov> or (for a less modest fee) via Courtlink <www.courtlink.com>. If you have access to a legal database such as Westlaw or Lexis, you can find out if the person was involved in a federal or state case in which there was a published legal opinion.
Finding out if someone has a criminal record is a bit more complicated. If you're just interested in your local jurisdiction you can go to the courthouse and check the criminal index. If you want a wider search, you may have to pay a public records search service. A small number of jurisdictions have put their court dockets on the internet. To find a list of links to those dockets, go to the BRB Publications site <www.brbpub.com/pubrecsites.asp>. To find out if someone is on the list of parties barred from doing business with the federal government, go to <epls.arnet.gov>.
Thanks to federal and state disclosure laws, it is more difficult to hide what some observers have called legal bribery; i.e. campaign contributions. At the federal level, campaign contributions by corporate executives and their company’s political action committee may be tracked via a database compiled by the Federal Election Commission. This database is available via the FEC itself <www.fec.gov>, but several private groups have enhanced the information in very useful ways. See, especially, the website of the Center for Responsive Politics <www.opensecrets.org> and FECInfo <www.tray.com/fecinfo>. These sites have information on both hard money and soft money (non-candidate-specific) contributions.
State campaign contribution data is now easily available on the web thanks to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The Institute’s website <www.followthemoney.org> allows for searching by individual or corporate name. Keep in mind that some states, unlike the federal government, allow corporations to contribute directly to candidates.
Campaign contributions are a good example of how the value of privacy is sometimes outweighed by the need for transparency in matters of public concern. The dangers of Big Brotherism are all around us, but part of the solution is the availability of more, not less, information about the rich and powerful individuals who are making decisions that affect our lives.