Write & Wrong

It’s an adage in the auditing world that examination results that can’t be effectively communicated might as well not exist.  Unlike a financial statement audit report, the CFE’s final report presents a unique challenge because there is no standardized format. Our Chapter receives more general inquiries from new practitioners about the form and content of final examination reports than about almost any other topic.

Each fraud investigation report is different in structure and content, depending on the nature and results of the assignment and the information that needs to be communicated, as well as to whom the results are being directed. To be effective, therefore, the report must communicate the findings in an accurate and concise form. Corporate counsel, law enforcement, juries, an employing attorney and/or the audit committee and management of the victimized organization must all be able to delineate and understand the factual aspects of the fraud as well as the related risks and control deficiencies discovered so that appropriate actions can be taken timely. Thus, the choice of words used and the tone of the CFE’s final report are as important as the information presented within it. To help ensure their reports are persuasive and bring positive results, CFEs should strive to keep them specific, meaningful, actionable, results oriented, and timely.

Because the goal of the final report is to ensure that the user can interpret the results of the investigation or analysis with accuracy and according to the intentions of the fraud examiner or forensic accountant, the report’s tone and structure are paramount. The report should begin by aligning issues and recommendations with applicable ACFE and with any other applicable professional standards and end with results that are clearly written and timely presented. To ensure quality and accuracy, there are some basic guidelines or ground rules that authorities recommend should be considered when putting together a final report that adds value.

The CFE should consider carefully what specifically to communicate in the report, including the conditions, cause, effect, and “why” of each of the significant fraud related facts uncovered.  Fraud investigators should always identify and address issues in a specific context rather than in broad or general terms. For example, stating that the fraud resulted from weaknesses in the collection and processing of vendor payment receipts is too broad. The report should identify the exact circumstances and the related control issues and risk factors identified, the nature of the findings, an analysis of the specific actions constituting the fraud and some discussion (if the CFE has been requested to do so) of possible corrective actions that might be taken.

To force the writing toward more specificity, each paragraph of the report should express only one finding, with major points enumerated, or bulleted, and parallel structure should be used for each itemized statement of a listing of items. Further, the most important findings should be listed in the first sentence of a paragraph. Once findings are delineated, the explanatory narration of facts aligned to each finding should be presented. Being specific means leaving nothing to the
user’s interpretation beyond that which is intended by the writer.  Another way to achieve specificity is to align the writing of the report to an existing control framework like the Committee of Sponsoring Organizations of the Treadway Commission’s (COSO’s) internal control or risk management frameworks. When issues are aligned with existing standards or to a framework, it can be easier for the CFE to explain the weaknesses in the client’s control environment that made the fraud possible.

The question to be answered is: Can the client(s) readily tell what the issues are by reading the investigative report alone? If the answer is “no,” how will they satisfactorily address areas the client will eventually deem important in moving forward toward either remediation or possible prosecution? This aspect of the writing process requires the practitioner to, first, identify to whom the final report is specifically directed and, second, determine what is to be communicated that will add value for the client. For example, the report may a communication to an employing attorney, to corporate counsel, to the client’s management or audit committee or to all three. What are their expectations? Is the report the result of a routine investigation requested by client management of possible accounts payable fraud or a special investigation to address a suspected, specifically identified fraud? The answer to these and related questions will help determine the appropriate technical level and tone for the report.

When there are different readers of the report, the process necessarily becomes more complex under the necessity to meet the expectations, understandings and eventual usages of all the parties. Finding the right words to address the identified fraud related facts in a positive tone, especially when client conditions surrounding the fraud are sometimes sensitive or at least not favorable, is crucial to making the report meaningful as well as persuasive. The investigative findings must be clear and logical. If the reported results are understood and meaningful actions that add value to the position of the various users are taken because of the findings, then the purpose and meaning of the CFE’s report (and work) will be realized.

What about investigative situations in which the CFE or forensic accountant is asked to move beyond a straight-forward presentation of the facts and, as an expert on fraud and on fraud prevention, make recommendations as to corrective actions that the client might take to forestall the future commission of frauds similar to those dealt with in the final report? In such cases (which are quite common, especially with larger clients), the final report should strive to demonstrate to the extent possible the capacity of the entity to implement the recommendations the CFE has included in the report and still maintain an acceptable level of operation.  To this end, the requested recommended actions should be written in a way that conveys to management that implementing the recommendations will strengthen the organization’s overall fraud prevention capability. The writing, as well as the complexity of the corrective action, should position the client organization to implement recommendations to strengthen fraud prevention. The report should begin with the most critical issue and progress to the least important and move from the easiest recommended corrective steps to the most difficult, or to the sequence of steps to implement a recommendation. The cost to correct the fraud vulnerability should be
apparent and easily determined in the written report. Additionally, the report should provide management with a rubric to evaluate the extent to which a deficiency is corrected (e.g., minimally corrected, fully corrected). Such a guide can be used to gauge the fraud prevention related decisions of management and serve as a basis for future fraud risk assessments.

Developing the CFE’s final report is a process that involves four stages: outlining, drafting, revising, and editing. In the outlining stage, the practitioner should gather and organize the information so that, when converted to a report, it is easy for the reader to follow. This entails reviewing the working papers and making a list of the fraud related facts to be addressed and of their related chronologies. These should be discussed with the investigative team (if any) and the
client attorney, if necessary, to ensure that there is a clear understanding of the underlying facts of the case. Any further work or research should be completed at this stage. This process may be simple or complicated, depending on the extent of the investigation, the unit or operation that is under examination, and the number of fraud related facts that must be addressed.

Once all information has been gathered, the next stage is writing the draft of the report. In completing the draft, concise and coherent statements with sufficient detail should enable the reader to understand the chronology and related facts of the fraud, the fraud’s impact on operations, and the proposed corrective actions (if requested by the client). After completing the draft, revisions may be necessary to make sure that the evidence supports the results and is written in a specific context.

The final stage involves proofreading and editing for correct grammar, sentence structure, and word usage to ensure that the facts and issues related to the fraud are effectively and completely presented and that the report is coherent. Reviewers should be used at this stage to give constructive feedback. Several iterations may be necessary before a final report is completed.

In summary, the CFE’s final report should be designed to add value and to guide the client organization’s subsequent steps to a satisfactory overall fraud response and conclusion. If the CFE’s report is deficient in communicating results, critical follow-on steps requiring immediate action may be skipped or ignored. This can be costly for any company in lost opportunities for loss recoveries, botched prosecutions and damaged reputation.

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