By JACK WEATHERLY
“You’re unable to live vicariously through my life,” Lewis Watt, private investigator, said with a laugh.
The romance of the profession long popularized in movies and novels is basically fiction, Watt said.
It’s a business, and things are are on the upswing for Ridgeland-based LAW Investigative Group LLC, of which Watt is president.
“It’s picking up. It had been in the trough for some time during this economic slump,” Watt said.
Watt just opened an office in Memphis to go with the base operation and one in Austin, Texas. Another investigator was hired for the Ridgeland office earlier this year. The four staff investigators are supplemented by two contract workers in Houston, Watt said.
The economic recovery has made insurance companies more likely to go after a contested claim than just settle, Watt said.
And the profession in Mississippi continues to try to do what it can for itself.
The Mississippi Private Investigators Association will reload again for the 2017 legislative session to try to get a law passed that requires licensing of those in the profession.
Two efforts have failed, but Jim Buckley, president of the group, said it will try again. “We’re going to keep on till it takes place. We got fairly close this time. So maybe next year it will pass.”
Only a handful of states do not require licensing, Buckley said. The association, which has about 20 members, does its own vetting of members, “just as if they were being licensed,” he said.
Watt said, “I absolutely agree” with the need for licensing. “There is no regulatory agency overseeing our profession right now.”
“I guess if you’ve got a felony record and want to be a PI, then this is the place to do it,” Watt said.
Watt began his 21-year career as an investigator after he worked for several years as a police officer in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
He usually works for the business side of the equation.
Watt was an investigator for the defense counsel in a lawsuit against tobacco companies in cases brought by individuals and won “all three” cases – in Florida, New York and Kansas – in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, he said.
So-called “big tobacco” agreed in 1998 to make $206 billion in payments to 46 states over 25 years for their share of the Medicaid cost of health problems caused by smoking.
Mike Moore, then Mississippi attorney general, led the way in 1994 as four states successfully sued major tobacco firms, which served as a model for the national settlement. Mississippi was given $3.4 billion over 25 years.
High stakes aside, his most personally gratifying case was the reuniting of a mother and daughter who had been separated by oceans for 13 years, Watt said. It took him two weeks to solve the case, which had been milked by a disreputable PI for a year for $1,000, he said.
Watt holds a bachelor of science degree in criminal justice from Auburn University-Montgomery and an MBA from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan.
Keeping abreast of the technological curve is paramount for the firm, he said. And staying on the right side of the law regarding technology is likewise crucial.
In a case of marital infidelity, private investigators cannot probe a smart phone unless the spouse who suspects such behavior owns the phone.
If the offended spouse does not, such investigation would run “into the black area of surveillance” – afoul of federal law, he said.
If the offended spouse owns his mate’s phone, the device can be legally “scrubbed,” he said. “You’ve heard, of course, that nothing is ever deleted off a computer. If a husband believes his wife is cheating and he can provide us with her phone, should it be in his name, my technicians can scan that . . . extract all those deleted emails, text messages, Facebook posts, phone records.”
Twenty-first century technology is not the whole story.
Watt says he does carry a gun, “but is more a protection from the unknown, than it is knowing I’m going into a hostile situation.” The occasion has not arisen for him to use it, he said.
“I tend to live the boring side of private investigation. There are some private investigators who do manly criminal defense work and try get people out of prison due to judicial error, police officer mistakes or whatever.”
“Maybe some of those guys are the ones that are written up in the crime novels.”
A solid, 6-1, 275 pounds, Watt says that “rather than being a tough guy, it’s better to be confident. You dispel a lot of aggression that’s coming your way.”
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