Inquiring Minds

Uncovering delinquent behavior

by Phyl Newbeck

peterbarton0619cPeter Barton, the owner and president of Barton Agency & Backgrounds Plus in Wilmington, launched the company in the late 1980s. The firm conducts investigative services and background checks for organizations across the United States and Canada.
Contributed Photo

He’s not Santa Claus, but Peter Barton knows if you’ve been naughty. As the longtime owner and director of Backgrounds Plus, the Wilmington resident has spent most of his life doing investigative work. He and the firm’s manager, Anita Bobee, run a company that provides background checks and other investigative services for organizations throughout the United States and Canada.

anita0619cAnita Bobee, a 30-year veteran of the Brattleboro Police Department, manages the firm.
Contributed Photo

A native Vermonter from the Northeast Kingdom town of Barton (no relationship), Barton graduated from Orleans High School where his father taught and coached basketball and baseball. Barton played both sports during all four years of high school. After graduation, he enlisted in the Navy. He spent enough time at sea to qualify for transfer to naval command in Washington, D.C., where he worked as a radioman/cryptographic expert, interpreting messages.

Barton took classes at the University of Vermont before leaving to take the Vermont state trooper exam. He was hired by the force in 1959, initially stationed at St. Albans. When he was told he was being transferred to Wilmington, his knowledge of southern Vermont was so limited, he says, that he wondered why he was being sent to Delaware.

His new outpost was a small one covering four towns: Dover, Whitingham, Readsboro, and Marlboro. “We were called “outpost troopers” in those days,” he says. “I operated out of my home.”

The town of Wilmington made a good impression on him and is now the place he calls home. He has been the town constable since 1989 and served a four-year term as a justice of the peace.

When the Vermont State Police opened a bureau for criminal investigations, Barton became one of its first plainclothes detectives. Initially working out of St. Johnsbury, he was subsequently transferred to Shaftsbury where he worked for two years, also providing security for the Green Mountain Race Track in Pownal.

One of Vermont’s deputy attorneys general knew Barton from his Wilmington work and offered him a position as an investigator. “I had gotten used to that line of work,” he says, “so I thought my days in uniform were over.” He spent 10 years as the chief investigator before being asked to join the staff of the Bennington County State’s Attorney in 1979. Three years later, the town manager of Bennington asked him to take over its police force, and he served as chief of police from 1983 to 1987.

“At that point,” Barton recalls “I had been approached by several entities about security issues and decided to open a security business. I was already licensed as a private investigator so I went to work for ski areas and various companies, upgrading their security.” He notes that this was an era when people could walk in and out of most establishments without constraints.

“Times were changing,” he says, “and companies wanted alarm systems and card readers. I did a lot of work with them to upgrade their facilities.”

While protecting the physical aspect of places of employment, Barton started fielding questions from human resource personnel. At first, he was simply hired to be a presence when employees were being terminated, but soon the companies began to wonder if they could avoid having to fire someone by being more thorough in the hiring process.

“People were being hired without background checks,” Barton says, “and after a few months they would discover that someone had a criminal record, but it was too late because they had already been hired. I told them that they should always prescreen people before hiring them.”

Barton decided to expand his business to one that could conduct preemployment checks, and in 1986 he convinced Anita Bobee, a 30-year veteran of the Brattleboro Police Department, to join forces with him. Bobee had already been doing some part-time work with Barton. “I’d been exposed to investigations at the police department and had been doing administrative work,” she says, “so this seemed like a natural fit and a chance to get out of the public sector.”

Soon, preemployment checks became the agency’s bread and butter. The preemployment checks have overtaken the private investigative work and accounts for about 60 percent of the business today. “We don’t do much private investigative work anymore,” Barton says, “but we are doing background screening across the United States and Canada.”

Backgrounds Plus was one of the founding members of the National Association of Professional Background Screeners. Barton and Bobee continue to be active in the association, and theirs is the only Vermont company to be a member of the group.

Barton notes that these days people might be tempted by online ads for companies that do background checks, but he notes that their work is not as complete as his. “We go into the courts,” he says. “They don’t do that so they don’t get an accurate record.” Some companies, he adds, are going beyond initial background checks and now review their employees’ records every five years.

Every day at the business is a little different from the next because Barton and Bobee never know who will be calling them. “It’s a constantly changing field,” he says. “Both the federal and Vermont legislatures work to put controls on the type of information we deal with, so we constantly have to monitor that.” Bobee concurs that the work is always changing and challenging. “Every applicant who sends in a form is different,” she says, “so the work is still enjoyable.”

Green Mountain College has been using Backgrounds Plus for the past 13 years, says Janie Evans, its human resources and payroll director. “Nowadays it’s the norm to do background checks on new hires,” she says. “That’s just the reality of our world.” She says the college had previously used other agencies but were not as impressed by their work.

“Peter and Anita have been very consistent,” she says. “I love working with a Vermont company, and you get a personal touch. Since they are licensed investigators, you can get additional information from them so it’s a one-stop shop.”

With Green Mountain College’s closing, Evans is moving to another school and inquired where it obtained its background checks. “I’m thrilled that I’ll still be working with Anita and Peter,” she says. “They’re the best.”

Barton used to employ two investigators. He has downsized to one, but he also has reciprocal agreements with investigators in other states. “We do work with human resource people who want to know what they can do about employees who have broken company regulations,” he says.

Barton gives the example of a bank vice president in New York who had developed a habit of not returning to the office after lunch. A little sleuthing turned up the fact that the VP was drinking a few too many Manhattans while lunching with a young lady, and the alcohol affected him enough that he would drive home while under the influence rather than return to work. Needless to say, his employment was terminated.

Years ago, Jimmy Swift of Aurora North Software in Burlington belatedly discovered an unsavory fact about one of his workers. Nothing like that has happened since he started working with Backgrounds Plus at the end of 2015. “Our lawyer recommended them,” he recalls, “and we met them and liked them. It’s like a mom-and-pop operation. They are small, easy to contact, and very responsive.”

Thanks to Backgrounds Plus, Swift says he can feel confident the people he sends to install software for clients have been thoroughly vetted. “They verify education,” he says, “and do federal, state, and local criminal checks as well as looking at the sex offender registry. For clients who want more details, they can provide further information such as credit checks.”

Barton isn’t traveling as much as he used to — the Internet has helped in that area. Instead, he enjoys helping out at the Masonic Lodge and has just completed a five-year term as secretary of Social Lodge 38 in Wilmington. He and his wife, Connie, have been married for 61 years, having tied the knot when she graduated from UVM and he left the service.

Connie is a retired school principal. Their daughter, Keli, is a teacher, son Jeffrey is the deputy chief of police in Colchester, and son Tim is a consultant in Massachusetts. Among the three of them they have seven children, and Barton has five great-grandchildren ranging in age from 10 months to 10 years. “It’s a happy time when we’re all together,” he says, noting that the family often gathers at their camp on Crystal Lake in Barton each summer. “I’m very blessed to have a lovely family.”

Barton says he’s happy to be able to provide his services to companies in Vermont and beyond. Backgrounds Plus does not make hiring or firing decisions but supplies the information on which those decisions are made. “We’ve got a good business,” he says. “It’s a business where you have to have your fingers on the pulse all the time because you’re dealing with people’s lives.” •