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Sun March 4, 2012
They're Nobody And Want To Know Everything
Two mysterious men pull up to the courthouse and head to the public records office. They're strangers, and they ask a lot of strange questions like, "I'd like to look at Mayor John Doe's property deeds." Or, "I want to see Congressman Smith's voting records."
They're not from the FBI. They're not even G-Men. They're Alan Huffman and Michael Rejebian, two former investigative journalists who sift through the muck to conduct opposition research on political candidates. Their tales of hitting the road and poking noses into a politician's past are documented in their book, We're With Nobody.
The title is their stock answer when city hall clerks ask what organization they represent. But Huffman and Rejebian aren't just researching the opposition.
"When we're doing these reports, we have to research our candidate with the same vigor as we do his or her opponent," Rejebian tells Jackie Lyden, guest host of weekends on All Things Considered. "So if we get caught up in that passion of politics that most people get caught up in, we get a stilted report."
To get those facts, they have to deal with testy courthouse clerks, former spouses, old employers — not always the most agreeable sources. Over the years, Rejebian and Huffman have learned to "outlast" everyone else to find the same information.
They say their investigative reports test a candidate's fitness to lead, meaning they have come across plenty of unsavory details.
"You find a guy who beat up his girlfriend or a guy who threw a pipe bomb at the homecoming float when he was in high school, which unfortunately turned out to be our guy," Huffman says.
Not all of their research reveals such dramatic stories, and that's fine, says Rejebian.
"Our job is document and to give factual information to our campaigns," he says. "Not to run a smear campaign."
Objectiveness aside, they both admit it's a pretty fun gig.
"It's the best job, I'm telling you, and it's a great road trip," Rejebian says.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Two mysterious men pull up to the courthouse and head to the public records office. They're strangers, and they ask a lot of strange questions like, I'd like to look at Mayor John Doe's property deeds. Or, I want to see Congressman Smith's voting records. They're not from the FBI. They're not even G-Men.
They're two former journalists, and they sift through the muck to do opposition research on political candidates. When they walk into a county records office, it's the reaction from hostile clerks that inspire their book title "We're with Nobody."
MICHAEL REJEBIAN: The first question we always get is who are you guys with, and our answer is always we're with nobody. We're with us. Or I'll say I'm with him and I'll point to Alan. And the second reason that that's the name of the book is because when we're doing these reports, we have to research our candidate with the same vigor as we do his opponent or her opponent. So if we get caught up in that passion of politics that most people get caught up in, we end up with a stilted report. We are really with nobody.
LYDEN: This book is full of so many delicious anecdotes. I'm sure that pretty soon, it'll be a TV series. But first of all, how do you describe what it is that you do? Alan?
ALAN HUFFMAN: Well, we go ahead and just say that we dig up dirt on politicians, because we found that any way we describe it, that's what people come back with. The thing that I think is most surprising to people is that we also dig it up on our own candidate so they'll know how they might be attacked.
LYDEN: You describe an attitude some public officials have and you use the word honey hole. Michael?
REJEBIAN: Well, you go into a clerk's office or a courthouse, whatever government office you're in, and, you know, a lot of times, you're met with resistance and they don't want to give you the public records that you're entitled to. You know, we've learned over the years where they may turn some people away. We just outlast them.
HUFFMAN: Yeah. You know, and you mentioned the honey hole. I think what we have observed is that sometimes you have a candidate, they think they hold the keys to this domain. And when we said that it's their own little honey hole that they can just probe for power, and sometimes the people in the courthouse share that feeling with them. And you come in and you start asking questions, very pointed questions, about that guy, and there are people that are going to throw obstacles in your path. But what we've learned is that there's always one person in there that is cheering you on.
LYDEN: So, Alan, are you looking for stuff that's going to take that candidate down, or do you not have a judgment about it, you're just looking for whatever is there and then you give it to your client?
HUFFMAN: Well, we're obviously hoping that we'll give them the information that will cause their opponent to be defeated. So that is our aim. But we're basically just trying to create a profile of this guy that illustrates his or her fitness to lead. And so you find a guy who beat up his girlfriend or a guy who threw a pipe bomb at a homecoming float when he was in high school, which unfortunately turned out to be our guy.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HUFFMAN: Or you find a guy that - in one case where - I'm interviewing a guy that's sitting on the porch of his trailer, his mobile home, with a shotgun, a loaded shotgun across his lap because he thinks someone's going to kill him because he's got some information that this candidate has criminal connections. So sometimes it's almost mundane. Sometimes it's very dramatic. But what we're always looking for is something that tells you about this person's fitness to lead.
LYDEN: Well, right, but let's be honest here. You're going to start with the official records, but then you might go to, hmm, I think maybe the ex-wife or the ex-boyfriend or the ex-cousin-in-law would have some information.
HUFFMAN: Yes. And we've learned over the years that ex-anythings make some of the best sources. You know, in one instance, I was talking to an ex who had some information on her husband and she was - it was a conversation when you're interviewing these folks that you don't know what path it's going to take you down. And she really didn't have much information at all. And we got to kind of towards the end of the conversation and I said, well, is there anything else, you know, that you know or would like to tell me? She goes, yeah. I heard that he beat up his girlfriend in an airport. And it was like, OK. Well, that's something good.
LYDEN: Now, why is something like an assault worse than, say, non-payment of debt?
REJEBIAN: Non-payment of taxes - that can be a mistake. OK? That can be somebody who just - who forgot. And many people do that, and that's something that you can get past, especially as a political candidate. But domestic violence - voters don't buy that, and it's pretty much a political killer.
LYDEN: Have there every been times when you found out something about someone, you decided maybe you weren't going to use it and then your client did, and you felt a little squishy about it?
HUFFMAN: No. Honestly, I can't say - Michael may disagree, but I can't think of one where - because pretty much, we're going to give everything to the campaign and we're just going to say: Here's what we got that we can document. If we found something out that we can't document, we're either not going to tell them or we're going to tell them you can't use it because it isn't documented. And more likely, what happens with us is they will not use something that we think is really important, and that's happened plenty of times.
LYDEN: Michael, do you ever place yourself on the same level as, say, a Karl Rove or a Lee Atwater? I mean, have people started using this kind of information in more negative ways?
REJEBIAN: Oh, I think they're definitely using it in more negative ways, especially since the advent of superPACs. But, no, we absolutely do not put us in the same category as Karl Rove or Lee Atwater. Our job is to document and to give factual information to our campaigns, not to run a smear campaign, not to run a campaign based on innuendo or rumor. We have to have the facts. And we pride ourselves on, you know, people think, OK, we're dirt diggers and so we're like the bottom of the barrel or something. But, you know, we consider ourselves very ethical in what we do.
LYDEN: Admit it, you love it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HUFFMAN: We do.
REJEBIAN: It's the best job, I'm telling you, and it's a great road trip.
LYDEN: Well, the former journalists and investigators Alan Huffman and Michael Rejebian, they're opposition researchers and they're the authors of the new book "We're with Nobody." Alan and Michael, thanks very much for joining me.
HUFFMAN: Thanks for having us.
REJEBIAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.