FTC reportedly is probing the scope of Perot's investigations

October 06, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- The Federal Trade Commission has opened an inquiry into complaints that private detectives believed to be working for Ross Perot's presidential campaign improperly investigated volunteers, according to parties involved in the case.

Former volunteers said yesterday that they and others in Maryland, Ohio, Missouri, New Jersey and Illinois were subject to credit checks -- possibly in violation of the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act.

Their accounts suggest that the scope of Mr. Perot's investigations of volunteers may have been wider than previously reported. At least 20 former volunteers say their credit TTC reports were checked, while nine former state coordinators were subject to more extensive probes by private investigators, volunteers say.

"This cloak-and-dagger stuff is not right," said Edward Dyck, a St. Louis businessman and former volunteer who discovered recently that credit checks had been done on him.

"I could understand it if I was going to work for them, but as a volunteer? I handled no money. All I was trying to do was get Mr. Perot on the ballot in Missouri."

Perot officials conceded last week that they had paid $56,000 to a San Francisco detective agency, Callahan & Gibbons, to investigate allegations of misconduct by state coordinators.

Perot campaign spokeswoman Sharon Holman said in a statement last night that "unbeknownst to Mr. Perot," a lawyer advised the Perot Petition Committee to hire a security firm to provide services normally accorded presidential candidates by the Secret Service.

"We have been repeatedly assured that in connection with those services, there were neither illegal credit checks or any other illegal activity of any sort," the statement said.

Mr. Holman said that detectives hired by the committee investigated volunteers suspected of wrongdoing, such as mishandling money. The only information obtained from credit companies, she said, were names and addresses.

The Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act makes it illegal to disclose a credit report except when someone is applying for a job or credit, or when someone "has a legitimate business need for the information in connection with a business transaction involving the consumer."

Bill Sweet, a Cleveland, Ohio, lawyer who is representing some former Perot volunteers, said yesterday that case law has held that volunteers should not be subject to the same credit checks as employees.

"It looks like there is a clear violation of the law, and so far, the enforcement division of the FTC agrees with our initial analysis," Mr. Sweet said.

The FTC would neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.

Besides the FTC, Equifax Inc., the giant credit reporting agency in Atlanta, is conducting an internal investigation into whether someone improperly accessed records of consumer credit. Also, a House Banking subcommittee is looking into the ex-volunteers' complaints.

"The fact that an individual volunteers to participate in elective politics simply does not give license to invade his or her privacy," Rep. Esteban E. Torres, D-Calif., chairman of the Subcommittee on Consumer Affairs and Coinage, said in a statement.

Several volunteers in Ohio, New Jersey and Maryland say that their credit reports were accessed by O'Connell Associates Inc., a private detective agency out of Smithtown, N.Y.

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