Who could have predicted that taking on a pro-bono matter against a human-rights abuser would convince me to give up my career as a litigator and become a private investigator?
This month, I was honored to accept the Center for Justice and Accountability’s Partners in Justice award on behalf of my investigative firm, Mintz Group, for providing pro-bono investigative assistance to help CJA bring the world’s worst human rights abusers to justice.
The Mintz-CJA relationship — and my personal journey from litigator to private eye — began in 2004, when I was a young associate at a San Francisco law firm. I joined that firm in part because of its commitment to global pro-bono work, which meshed with my pre-law school career in international conflict resolution and my residences and studies abroad.
Starting in 2004, I was part of the law firm’s pro-bono legal team that partnered with CJA to pursue Emmanuel “Toto” Constant, the leader of one of Haiti’s most notorious paramilitary death squads during the 1990s. Constant was then living a comfortable life in Queens, N.Y., as a real estate agent. We chose to hire Mintz Group over several other P.I. firms and worked closely with them for more than a year to find Constant’s assets and to identify and discreetly speak with his associates.
In 2004, we filed a federal civil lawsuit against Constant on behalf of CJA’s brave Haitian clients who survived Constant’s brutal campaign of violence, and ultimately won a $19 million default judgment. Following the civil judgment, Constant was separately tried for mortgage fraud in New York state court, and CJA helped convince the judge to reject a lenient plea bargain; instead, citing his human rights abuses, Constant was convicted and sentenced to a significant prison term. (These details of the Toto Constant investigation and subsequent lawsuits are a matter of public record.)
During the Constant investigation, I received a crash course in how to locate missing witnesses, track assets, and dig up undisclosed ties among people and companies — things you don’t learn in law school. I found myself fascinated by the investigative fact-gathering work and how it served to strengthen human rights advocacy and litigation.
After a short stint at another law firm, I wanted a break from the grind of litigation, and by lucky coincidence, Mintz’s San Francisco office was looking for help to grow the team. My plan was to take a couple years to get my P.I. license and learn the tricks of the trade, and then return to litigation with these exciting new skills.
Almost 12 years later, I’m now a partner and associate general counsel at Mintz Group, and a practicing private eye.
And my investigator colleagues and I have kept up our now 14-year commitment to CJA. I’ve had the pleasure to work with CJA’s talented legal staff on more than two dozen investigations and train them on investigative fact gathering, and I remain proud to play a small role in their many legal victories.