Category Archives: Financial Fraud

And the Cash Flows On

As a fraud examiner and information systems auditor, I’ve always been a big fan of the cash flow statement and I think you should be too. For the non-accountant investigators among you, the cash flow statement reveals what happened to the client’s cash during the reporting period. It’s very much like your bank account statement: You have a beginning balance of cash at the start of the month, you deposit your paycheck, you write some checks for your mortgage and groceries, and then you end the month with a new cash balance. This is what a cash flow statement is: simply a beginning balance of cash, plus or minus some cash transactions, to arrive at an ending cash balance.

Another way to view the cash flow statement is as an income statement that is adjusted for non-cash transactions and transactions that have not yet impacted cash. Non-cash transactions are transactions that affect the income statement but will never affect cash. Depreciation is a non-cash transaction that is added back to profits on the cash flow statement since cash is never paid out or collected when an asset is depreciated. The cash flow statement also clarifies transactions that immediately impact cash. A company can make a sale but not collect on it, or incur an expense and not immediately pay for it in cash. These are called accounts receivable and accounts payable, respectively. Revenues that are earned but not received and expenses that are incurred but not paid would show up on the income statement, but not on the cash flow statement. So the formula for the statement is simply …

Beginning Cash Balance
+I- Net Cash Flows from Operating Activities
+I- Net Cash Flows from Investing Activities
+I- Net Cash Flows from Financing Activities
= Ending Cash Balance

There are two methods of reporting cash flows from operations; in the direct method, the sources of operating cash flows are listed along with the uses of operating cash flows, with the difference between them being the net cash flow from operating activities. In contrast, the indirect method reconciles net income per the income statement with net cash flows from operating activities; that is, accrual-basis net income is adjusted for non-cash revenues and expenses to arrive at net cash flows from operations. The net cash flows from operating activities is the same amount regardless of which method is used. The indirect method is usually easier to compute and provides a comparison of the company’s operating results under the accrual and cash methods of accounting. As a result, most companies choose to use the indirect method, but either method is acceptable.

So what does all this provide as a tool for the fraud examiner? Simply, the cash flow statement provides any CFE with lots of neat information for further analysis in a very compact form. First of all, the statement tells you what the company’s cash receipts and cash payments were for the period. Remember that it’s unlike the income statement in that the income statement takes into account all revenue and expense transactions, whether or not they affected cash. The cash flow statement only considers transactions that involve cash.

The cash flow statement divides the company’s cash transactions into three categories:

• Operating activities, which include all cash received and paid out in connection with the company’s normal business operations, such as cash received from customers and funds paid to vendors. This category essentially encompasses any cash transactions that affect items on the income statement.
• Investing activities, which are cash flows related to the sale or purchase of non-current assets, such as fixed assets, intangible assets, and investments. This category generally covers those cash transactions that affect the asset side of the balance sheet.
• Financing activities, which are all cash inflows and outflows pertaining to the company’s debt and equity financing. Inflows include the proceeds received from issuing stocks and bonds and from borrowing money from a bank. Outflows include debt repayments and cash dividends paid to shareholders. In general, this category includes the cash transactions that affect the liabilities and owners’ equity side of the balance sheet.

In a perfect world, a company should only need loans when it has a timing problem between collecting and spending money or when it’s expanding. However, if a company expends more money than it will ever make, it will eventually go out of business. This is where the cash flow statement is so useful to the fraud examiner. You will want to get an idea of the cash flow necessary to run the business so that you will be able to tell whether the company is generating enough cash from operations to continue to do business. The examiner can also evaluate the relationship between total cash generated from financing and investing activities and the amount generated by operating activities.

Some things you will want to note from the cash flow statement in connection with any suspected financial fraud:
• Does the company have heavy demands on its operating cash each period?
• Do the inflows equal or exceed the outflows?
• Is the cash balance increasing or decreasing over time?
• Is the company making smart decisions about sources and uses of cash given its apparent financial condition?

This is information pertinent to the investigation of a wide range of fraud scenarios, the successful investigation of which involves different data than that commonly available in the income statement. The income statement alone does not reveal a complete picture of the company’s financial health, necessary for a full investigation of so many types of fraud. Evaluating income and cash flows includes considering the timing of items, such as collections of accounts receivable. In the end, a company might have a fabulous looking income statement, but might not have any cash available for operations. This may occur because the revenues recorded on the income statement have not been collected. Remember, as part of doing business, companies usually allow customers to make purchases on credit; this means the companies will collect the cash subsequent to the actual recording of the revenues. For example, a small high-tech manufacturer might have a healthy looking profit on its income statement, but not be able to pay its employees’ salaries. However, the entrepreneurial owners of the company expect all is well, since they think the net income on the income statement to be equal to the amount of cash in the company’s bank account. But, as is often the case, there’s a timing difference between when the company records a sale and when it actually receives the cash from its customers. As a result, the cash balance seldom, if ever, will match the income on the income statement. Other transactions – such as accrued or prepaid expenses, depreciation, and inventory purchases – will also cause a disparity between an organization’s net income and its net cash flows.

The statement of cash flows represents a trove of invaluable information that can cast light on virtually every aspect of a client’s financial health and, thus inform any investigation. Use it to your advantage.

Reaching Behind the Curtain

Not too long ago a close friend of one of our Chapter members paid a substantial sum of money to a relative, the owner of a closely held corporation, in exchange for a piece of the relative’s real estate to which, it turns out,  the relative/owner did not have clear title.  The relative apparently used a substantial portion of the funds to immediately clear debts of his corporation of which he and his wife are the sole officers and shareholders.  He now claims that, since he used the sale proceeds for corporate purposes, the refund of the purchase price he owes our Chapter member’s friend is a debt of the corporation and not of his personally.   Our Chapter’s friend has engaged an attorney at the suggestion of our certified Chapter member.

Our legal system recognizes that corporations have a separate existence from their shareholders/owners and are treated as ‘individuals’ under the law. There are two ways for a wrong-doer to use the existence of a corporation to avoid efforts to recover a money damage judgment from him or her:

–As in this case, the scammer argues that the corporation and not the shareholder/owner committed the offense, and therefore the shareholder’s personal assets and property should not be used to satisfy any judgment for the offense.

–Argues that the wrongdoer/shareholder’s property is held in the name of the corporation, and therefore s/he has no personal assets that can be used to satisfy a judgment against him  or her.

The first reflects the classic doctrine that shareholder/owners are not liable for the debts or liabilities of the corporation. Of course, if the shareholder/owner also controls the corporation and personally acted wrongfully, s/he may still be liable for her misconduct, and the corporation may simply be jointly and severally liable together with her. Whether the wrongful conduct was that of the corporation or that of an individual shareholder usually is a question of fact to be decided by the jury.

The second reflects the corporation’s ability, as a separate legal entity, to own its own property. If the corporation owns the property, then the individual shareholder does not.  Since both pre-judgement attachment writs and writs of execution can only reach a defendant’s interest in leviable assets, a wrongdoer can appear without assets and judgment proof – and your client can be unable to satisfy a money judgment against her- if the wrongdoer/shareholder has transferred title in her personal assets to the corporation. This does not apply to a non-money judgment to recover specific money or property which can reach proceeds or property in the hands of the wrongdoer or of third persons. Of course, if the wrongdoer’s transfer of assets to the corporation was to defraud creditors, the injured party can seek to have the transfers set aside.

However, even where a corporation apparently shields the defendant or his or her property, the wrongdoer and her leviable property can still be reached if the court can be convinced to disregard the corporation or to regard it merely as her alter ego. The court may do so if it can be proved that the corporation is merely a sham whose sole purpose is to help the wrongdoer fraudulently avoid liability for her conduct. This is sometimes called piercing the corporate veil.

If the corporation is found to be the alter ego of the shareholder, then either or both of the following consequences apply, depending on the goal in piercing the corporate veil:

–The wrongdoer is no longer shielded from liability for the corporation’s misconduct because the wrongdoer and the corporation are viewed by the court as one and the same.

–Corporate property can be reached to satisfy a judgment against the wrongdoer because the property is now regarded, properly, as the wrongdoer/shareholder’s property.

One of the factors to consider in attempting to pierce the corporate veil is whether the corporation is closely held; i.e. owned or directed by one or by a small or limited number of shareholders, officers, and directors (often all the members of the same family). Obviously, the larger the number of shareholders, and the more broadly the corporation’s directing positions are distributed, the less likely it is to be a sham or alter ego for one person. However, given the lawful goals and purposes of incorporation, even a small, closely held corporation may be legitimate. Conversely, the existence of other shareholders or other directors and officers may not mean that the corporation is not a sham.

The ACFE tells us that there is no hard and fast test to determine whether a corporation is a sham. Instead, courts will look at a variety of factors to determine whether to pierce the corporate veil. These factors include:

–As in this case, does the wrongdoer exercise sole or ultimate control over the activities of the corporation?

–Does the corporation’s charter describe the approved activities of the corporation with some specificity, or is it left largely to the discretion of the wrongdoer?

–Does the corporation fail to hold director’s and shareholder’s meetings, record minutes of those meetings, and otherwise observe the formalities of corporate existence?

–Is the corporation so undercapitalized as to raise questions about its viability as a separate entity?

–Are the corporation’s finances so intertwined or identifiable with those of the wrongdoer as to raise questions about its separate existence?

–Does the corporation own property which does not seem to reasonably relate to its activities, particularly as described in its charter?

–Does the wrongdoer use the corporation’s property as if they were her own, personal assets, including but not limited to whether she uses them for purposes not within the corporation’s approved activities?

These and similar or related facts can indicate that the corporation is a sham and has no true, separate existence from the wrongdoer/shareholder. In that case, the court would be justified in ruling that the corporation should be regarded as an alter ego of the wrongdoer and that the corporation and the wrongdoer be considered as one and the same ‘person’ for purposes of determining liability or levying on assets to satisfy a money judgment.

Many thanks to our member for bringing this case to our attention!

Fraudsters, All Too Human

Our certified Chapter members often get questions from clients and employers related to why a fraudster who’s victimized them did what he or she did. Examiners with the most experience in the process of interviewing those later convicted of fraud comment again and again about the usefulness to their overall investigation of a basic understanding of the fraudster’s basic mind set. Such knowledge can aid the examiner in narrowing down the preliminary pool of suspects, and, most importantly, assist in gaining an admission in a subsequent admissions seeking interview. ACFE experts regard fraud (and the process of interviewing) primarily as human constructs, and especially within the content of the interview process, to be able to tie in the pressure that the individual might have been under (as they perceived it) to the interview process; to understand that individual with regard to their rationalization as they were able to affect it, significantly increases the possibility of getting the compliance and cooperation that the examiner wants from the interviewee.

During your investigation, it’s important to remember that people do things for a reason. The fraud examiner might not understand the reasons a fraudster commits his or her crime, but the motivations certainly make sense to the perpetrator. For example, a perpetrator might commit fraud because her life has spiraled out of control, although it might not be out of control under a objective, reasonable person’s definition. But in the perpetrator’s view, her life has become so problematic that fraud is the only way she can see to restore balance. And during the fraud examination, if the examiner can get the suspected perpetrator to talk about the lack of control in her life, the examiner can often use this information to compel the fraudster to admit guilt and provide valuable insight into ways that similar frauds might be prevented in the future.

As a continuation of this line of thought, the examiner should consider possible human motives when examining evidence. Motive is the power that prompts a person to act. Motive, however, should not be confused with intent, which refers to the state of mind of the accused when performing the act. Motive, unlike intent, is not an essential element of crime, and criminal law generally treats a person’s motive as irrelevant in determining guilt or innocence. Even so, motive is relevant for other purposes. It can help identify the perpetrator; it will often guide the examiner to the proper rationalization; it further incriminates the accused, and it can be helpful in ensuring successful prosecution.

The examiner should search relevant documents to determine a possible motive. For example, if a fraud examiner has evidence in the form of a paycheck written to a ghost employee, she might suspect a payroll employee who recently complained about not receiving a raise in the past two years. Although such information doesn’t mean that the payroll employee committed fraud, the possible motive can guide the examiner.

ACFE experts also agree that interviewers should seek to understand the possible motives of the various suspects they encounter during an examination. To do this, interviewers should suspend their own value system. This will better position the interviewer to persuade the suspect(s) to reveal information providing insight into what might have pressured or motivated them and how they might have rationalized their actions. In an interview situation, the examiner should not suggest reasons for the crime. Instead, the examiner should let the individual share his motivations, even if the suspect reveals her motivations in an indirect manner. So when conducting an interview with a suspect, the interviewer should begin by asking questions about the standard procedures and the actual practice of the operations at issue. This is necessary to gain an understanding of the way the relevant process is intended to work as opposed to how it actually works. Additionally, asking such basic questions early in the interview will help the interviewer observe the interviewee’s normal behavior so that the interviewer can notice any changes in the subject’s mannerisms and word choice.

Always remember that there are times when rational people behave irrationally. This is important in the interview process because it will help humanize the misconduct. As indicated above, unless the perpetrator has a mental or emotional disorder, it is acceptable to expect that the perpetrator committed the fraud for a reason. Situational fraudsters (those who rationalize their right to an illegal enrichment and perpetrate fraud when the opportunity arises) do not tend to view themselves as criminals. In contrast to deviant fraudsters, who are more proactive than situational fraudsters and who are always on the alert for opportunities to commit fraud, situational fraudsters rationalize their crimes. Situational fraudsters feel that they need to commit fraud to regain control over their lives. Thus, an interviewer will be more likely to obtain a confession from a situational fraudster if she can genuinely communicate that she understands how anyone under similar circumstances might commit such a crime. Genuineness, however, is key. If the fraudster in any way detects that the interviewer is presenting a trap, he generally will not make any admission of wrongdoing.

So, in your examinations, never lose sight of the human element; that by definition, fraud involves human deception for personal gain. Why do people deceive to get what they want, or in some cases, what they need? Most humans commit deceptive acts to protect themselves from various consequences of the truth. Avoiding punishment is the most common reason for deception, but there are other reasons, including to protect another person, to win the admiration or respect of others, to avoid embarrassment, enjoy the thrill of accomplishment and to avoid hard work to achieve goals. When people feel that their self-security is threatened, they might resort to deception to preserve their image. Further, people can become so engaged in managing how others perceive them that they become unable to separate the truth from fiction in their own minds.

The ability to sympathetically cast oneself into the human situation of others is one of the most valuable skills that a fraud examiner can have in our efforts to determine the truth.

Inflexible Reporting

Our Chapter and the ACFE have published a number of articles and posts over the last few years about the various types of pressures that can push ethically challenged employees over the line between temptation and the perpetration of an actual accounting fraud. One category of such pressure stems directly from the nature of our present system of periodic financial reporting which, it can be argued, not only creates unnecessary volatility in the stock and financial markets but ends up requiring rational investors to demand a premium for securities investments by emphasizing the short term risk that near term, inflexable, quarterly earnings targets will not be met. The pressure to meet these short term targets can only give rise to operational inefficiencies which in turn drive up the inherent inefficiency in the transmission of information from public companies to financial markets based on a model which hasn’t changed much since its original definition during the Great Depression years of the 1930’s.

I’ve seen articles in the Journal of Accountancy and in other authoritative financial publications pointing toward a better way and, with the advent of and widening support for the electronic reporting of financial results to the SCC (the XBRL initiative), we can hope we’re well into the drawn of a new age. That there’s been pushback to this effort is understandable. Those familiar with the technical and professional minefield of the present quarterly reporting process can only feel sympathy with those financial officers who have to go through it, quarter by quarter and year after year. Questions originally abounded about process and mechanics like how is electronically published financial information going to be verified and what real controls are there over its reliability? What happens if there’s an honest mistake?

Think about all this from the point of view of the fraud examiner. If enterprises, listed and non-listed, can make the transition from a periodic to a real-time, electronic based financial reporting system, the resulting efficiencies and the decrease in numerous types of fraud related risk would be truly striking. Real-time financial reporting would free our clients from the tyranny of the present, economically nonsensical, reporting of quarterly results. How much of the incentive to commit financial fraud to meet the numbers does that immediately alleviate? As one financial expert after another has pointed out over the years, there’s just no justification for focusing on a calendar quarter as the unit in which to take stock of financial performance, beyond the fact that that’s what’s presently codified in the law. By contrast, what if financial information were published and available to all users on a real-time basis? The immediate availability of such information, continuously updated, on whatever basis is appropriate for the individual enterprise and its industry, would force companies to adopt a reporting unit that ready makes sense to them and to their principal information users. For some companies that unit might be a week, a month, a quarter, semi-annually or a year. So be it. Let a thousand flowers bloom; the upshot is that what would end up being reported would make sense for the company, its industry and for the information users rather than the one-size fits all, set in stone, prescription of the present law.

An additional advantage, and one with immediate implications for fraud prevention, would be the opportunity for increased efficiency in financial markets as investment dollars could be allocated not according to quarterly results or according to the best guess estimates of financial analysts, but by reliable financial information provided directly by the company all the time; goodbye to many of the present information control vulnerabilities that support insider trading because information is not widely and efficiently disseminated. The point is that by employing digital, cloud-based analytics report building tools properly, users of all kinds could customize a set of up-to-date financial reports (in whatever format) on whatever time period, that suits their fancy.

But many have also pointed out that if there is to be such a shift from periodic to real-time financial reporting, there needs to be a fundamental change in basic attitudes toward financial reporting. Those who report and those who inspect financial information will have to change their focus from methods by which the numbers themselves are checked (audited) to methods (as with XBRL) that focus on the reliability of the system that generates the numbers. That’s where fraud examiners and other financial insurance professionals come in. On-line financial information will be published with such frequency and so rapidly, that there will be no time to “check” individual numbers; the emphasis for assurance professionals will, therefore, need to shift away from checking numbers and balances to analysis of and reporting on the integrity of the system of internal controls over the reporting system itself; understanding of the details of the internal control system over financial reporting will gain a level of prominence it’s never had before.

Fraud examiners need to be aware of these issues when counseling clients about the profound impact that digitally based, on-line reporting of financial information is and will have on their fraud prevention and fraud risk assessment programs. As with all else in life, real time financial reporting will inevitably decrease the risk of some fraud scenarios and increase the risk of others.

The Multi-Purpose Final Report

ACFE training has long told us that a prudently crafted final examination report can have a variety of important uses. As we know, when the fraud investigation has been completed, the investigator writes a formal report. The report itself plus expert opinions and testimony are then used as needed to support the resolution of issues that can relate to a whole host of matters potentially concerning taxes, employment, regulatory reporting, litigation (civil and criminal), and insurance claims.

Because the report can be used for such varied purposes, it should always be constructed under the assumption that it will be challenged in court. This requires that the report meet very high standards; any errors or misstatements in it may be used to undermine the credibility of both the report and of the investigator who wrote it.

Frauds typically result in business losses. For income tax purposes, such losses may be classified as either deductions or offsets to reportable revenues depending on the type of loss and the taxing authority. In cases of misappropriation, almost any type of asset can be fraudulently converted, and in some cases, a valuation expert might be needed to determine the dollar amount of the loss.

In cases of occupational fraud, the financial records can be so damaged from the fraud scheme that an exact determination of the loss is impossible. In such cases, the report may attempt to estimate the loss using any reasonable means available because taxing authorities often permit estimation of losses in cases of destroyed records.

Some occupational fraud schemes result in so much damage to the financial records that the entity will not have enough information to file tax returns. This can happen, for example, if the revenue records are either destroyed or rendered unreliable as a result of fraudulent transactions and journal entries. In such cases, it might be necessary to conduct a major reconstruction of the accounting records before losses can be determined, reliable financial statements can be generated, and tax returns can be filed. In fact, in some cases, the fraud investigator’s report might need to focus on the loss due to destruction of the financial records and leave open the issue of misappropriation pending reconstruction of the financial records. Of course, depending on the scope of the investigation and the available information, the investigator might both reconstruct the financial records and report on any misappropriation losses.

Another tax-related issue involves the embezzlement of funds set aside to pay payroll taxes. The U.S. federal tax system sometimes refers to such funds as trust fund taxes because under tax law, these funds belong to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) from the moment they are collected. The business and the owners merely serve as trustees in collecting the taxes on behalf of the IRS.

Employers who terminate an employee for committing fraud can eventually battle the employee in litigation. In some cases, the former employee may sue for wrongful termination of employment, defamation, or discrimination. In other cases, an employee who is to be fired might have collective bargaining rights that require an arbitration process with a right of appeal. Fired employees may also attempt to claim government unemployment compensation benefits.

As a general rule, employees who are fired for serious misconduct (e.g., fraud) are not entitled to benefits. However, employees may argue that their termination was not deserved and may request a hearing to argue their side of the story. If this occurs, a fraud investigation report could serve as important evidence.

Whether a fired employee receives unemployment benefits may be important in determining the amount the company is required to pay for unemployment insurance. As a result, an employer who routinely fires employees runs the risk of incurring considerable increases in the cost of unemployment insurance. To make things even worse, if a fired employee was the one in charge of making unemployment insurance contributions but did not make them on time, a penalty rate of 150 percent could be applied to the employer’s future contributions. The exact consequences depend on the particular state involved because rules for unemployment insurance for state and federal governments differ. As a result of the possible tax and legal consequences as well as of possibly embarrassing publicity, employers are frequently reluctant to fire dishonest employees. Instead, they do things to encourage dishonest employees to leave voluntarily after taking measures to prevent them from continuing the fraud. In some cases, employers actually give dishonest employees favorable recommendations for future jobs.

Sometimes, a fraud investigation report may trigger mandatory reporting of the fraud to a government agency. For example, §1233.3 (a) of Title 12 (Banks and Banking) of the U.S. Electronic Code of Federal Regulations states the following:

‘A regulated entity shall submit to the Director a timely written report upon discovery by the regulated entity that it has purchased or sold a fraudulent loan or financial instrument, or suspects a possible fraud relating to the purchase or sale of any loan or financial instrument.’

A fraud investigation report can sometimes be more helpful in ruling out fraud than in ruling it in. For example, a report might read, “A detailed examination of the financial records did not reveal any intentional irregularities or evidence of fraud or misappropriation.” On the other hand, when there is fraud, the report might read something like, “There was a series of irregular computerized journal entries made in the accounts receivables ledgers and corresponding shortages in the cash account. The employee in charge of the computerized journal entries left the company before this investigation began and was not available for an interview. The owner states that only she and the former employee had access to the journal in question.”

The wording in this report suggests that the former employee may have embezzled funds from collections on account by making irregular journal entries. But the report cannot guarantee that s/he did so, nor can it definitively conclude that a fraud occurred. As a general rule in advance of an occupational fraud investigation, interested parties should not assume that the investigation will result in a report that gives a definitive answer to whether a fraud occurred. A more reasonable outcome is a report that identifies missed or damaging records or missing assets.

Fraud reports can be very helpful in both criminal and civil litigation. However, they can be less than satisfying in trying to persuade authorities to prosecute a suspect. What happens too often is that police or prosecutors browse through a fraud investigation report looking for a clear statement that identifies the guilty person. But, of course, such statements don’t appear in independent fraud investigation reports written by CFEs.

In many cases, a fraud investigation report is enough to at least persuade authorities to look at a case, especially with the hope of getting a quick confession. But if the suspect denies everything or lawyers up, law enforcement quickly realizes that they will need to hire a forensic accountant (because it is unlikely that they have one of their own) and will be forced to try to understand what they consider to be arcane and obscure accounting concepts.

The saying in law enforcement circles (as with the news media) is “if it bleeds, it leads.” In a metropolitan area, police quickly send a dozen squad cars, a SWAT team, and a helicopter to pursue someone who robs a liquor store of $100 with a penknife. But the same police respond with glassy eyes if the owner of the same liquor store reports that his accountant has robbed the business of $100,000 using a computer to manipulate the accounting records.

Although it does happen, most victims do not sue their fraudsters, primarily because fraudsters are typically judgment proof, meaning they do not have sufficient assets to repay their victims. However, criminal courts can and do order restitution, which can provide a strong motive for the victim to prosecute the perpetrator. In some jurisdictions, courts order convicted fraudsters to make regular restitution payments directly to the court, which then distributes them to the victim.

Finally, many companies have insurance with coverage for losses related to fraud. This coverage can include losses such as those due to the costs of preparing a proof of loss, losses due to embezzlement, losses of valuable papers and records, and loss of income. Independent fraud investigation reports can be very helpful in supporting insurance claims. Furthermore, one nice thing about embezzlement coverage is that some polices are written so that it is necessary only to prove that a loss has occurred, not who the guilty party is. The usefulness of a fraud investigation report with respect to losses of valuable papers and records, and loss of income, depends on the scope of the investigation. In many cases, the scope does not include determining the amount of losses of income or damage to valuable papers and records.

Inventory of Fraud

One of the first frauds I worked on early in my career was a scheme by management to overstate the periodic inventory of the Prison Industries system of a state Department of Corrections.   In that case the manipulation was carried out by creating false inventory counts and altering records after the physical count.

What made this an especially interesting case of management fraud were the various reasons that the audit report subsequently revealed why accounting management had decided to overstate the inventory:

• To overstate the income of Prison Industries.
• To achieve internally projected goals.
• To increase Prison Industry’s perceived value in the eyes of  the State government administration.
• To meet Department of Corrections stiff goals for Prison Industry management.
• To hide poor operational performance.
• To enhance the perceived performance of individual members of management.
• To hide the theft of some inventory.

These reasons are in contrast to fraudster goals if a fraud scheme’s overall objective is to show reduced inventory:

• To reduce income.
• The entity has achieved its goals and wants to show reduced results for the reporting period.
• To reduce the overall value of the business or enterprise.
• A new management team is in place and wants to defer reporting additional performance to the future.

Such inventory counting related schemes are likely to occur with inventory components perceived to be less likely of being counted or in conjunction with a planned reason for the false count. The hope is that any examiner/auditor will view the false count as an error versus an intentional plan to misstate the inventory. Therefore, the examiner needs to ensure that management has no record of the test counts. Certain types of inventory counts are more susceptible to being false, such as:

• Periodic Inventory. This particular inventory is susceptible to false counting because the auditor has no inventory reports to determine what the inventory should have been prior to the count.
• Perpetual Inventory. Variances or in-transit items are often used as an explanation for any deviations.
• Multiple Inventory locations. The non-tested sites are susceptible to false counts because the auditor is not performing procedures at those locations. Management may also use other scams in conjunction with the false-count fraud schemes.

As every accounting student knows, inventory is tangible property that either (1) is held for sale in the ordinary course of business (finished goods); (2) is in the process of production for such sale (work in process); or (3) is currently consumed either directly or indirectly in the production of goods or services available for sale (raw materials). The primary basis of accounting for inventory is cost. By definition, inventory excludes long-term assets subject to depreciation accounting.

The inventory records at Prison Industries were complex. Inventory was constantly being transferred between manufacturing processes, was often dispensed in several locations across the state’s correctional system, and normally comprised a significantly large amount of items. For these reasons, as well as the variety of decisions made about direct valuations, inventory was an appealing place for management to decide to commit financial statement fraud, in this case by manipulating and altering the physical inventory count.

Inventory falsification occurred at Prison Industries when the entity showed inventory on its financial statements that both did not exist and was improperly valued;  the two methods were  used simultaneously.  Techniques used to inflate the value of inventory included the creation of false documents, such as inventory count sheets, receiving reports, and manipulation of the actual physical inventory. During the fraud, it was common for management to insert phony inventory count sheets during the inventory observation or to alter the quantities on the count sheets. There where instances where management created the illusion that inventory existed with the help of phony inventory items. Simply put, some items of inventory that appeared real on paper were actually fake.

The fraud examination was originated as a result of predication provided by a Hot Line tip and featured the application of a number of procedures. Interviews were conducted with management and personnel. Questions asked included the following to determine whether the inventory represented by management actually existed and whether it was properly valued:

– Do the inventories included in the Prison Industries balance sheet physically exist?
– Does the inventory represent items held for use in the ordinary course of production?
– Do inventory quantities include all items on hand or in transit?
– Are inventory listings accurately compiled and are they properly included in the inventory accounts?
– Does the State have legal title or ownership rights to the inventory items?
– Does the inventory exclude items billed to customers or owned by others?
– Are inventory costs the result of an acceptable method consistently applied?
– Are inventories properly classified in the balance sheet and are the related disclosures adequate?

The examiners calculated the inventory turnover ratio. The inventory turnover ratio measures how fast inventory was moving through the entity. If the inventory is inflated, then the average inventory balance will be overstated, causing the inventory turnover ratio to decline. The  inventory turnover ratio was compared with the results from prior years and with industry averages for reasonableness.

Price tests were performed. A fraud examiner must determine whether the pricing of the inventory is reasonable. Price testing employs vouching, tracing, and re-computation procedures to test the auditee’s  pricing of its inventory. An examiner should test the application of prices by vouching items to vendors’ invoices and to cost accounting records to verify that the inventory is properly priced. For example, an examiner selects from the inventory detail item L243, classified as a raw material. According to the company’s records as of the balance sheet date, there are twenty L243s at $120 apiece. The examiner reviews the last invoice representing the purchase of L243s and discovers that the company purchased the L243s at $60 apiece. This price discrepancy is a sign that management might be trying to inflate the value of its inventory. Vendors’ invoices should also be traced to the books to confirm proper price recording. Examiners should recompute the quantities indicated on-hand by the observation with vendor prices to determine that the inventory, balances on the balance sheet are correct.

Following the fraud examination inventory was re-performed. The physical inventory was re-performed to ensure that the enterprise’s application of corrective action to methods for counting inventory would result in an accurate and reliable count in future. The re-examination of physical inventory included observation, as well as inquiries and physical examination (i.e., test counts). It is important to remember that management is responsible for the propriety of the inventory. The examiner observed the re-taking of the inventory to satisfy his/her reliance on management’s representations of the quantities and prices.

Cut off tests were performed. A cut-off test is a procedure to control the shipping and receiving activities at the physical inventory date. For the time of the physical inventory, the examiner  noted the numbers of the last pre-numbered shipping and receiving documents because purchases of inventory often are recorded when received and sales recorded when shipped. Identifying the document numbers helped the examiner determine whether the inventory was properly or improperly included or excluded from the inventory counts. For instance, if management indicated that the last shipping document for 1991 was #2500, then the examiner would assume that #2501 was shipped in January 1992. If, upon review of shipping document #2501, the examiner notices that the inventory was shipped in 1991, then there is the possibility that management is inflating the quantity and value of the company’s inventory at year-end. Therefore, inquiry and further testing are warranted. These cut-off numbers are often used in conjunction with the cut-off test used in accounts receivable and accounts payable testing. If cut-off procedures appear unclear or indicate possible inclusions in inventory of goods sold, then cut-off tests should be expanded.

There are several other audit procedures that can be used in detecting inventory fraud scenarios. These include:

• Reviewing the statement of cash flows and asking whether the increases and decreases in cash make sense in relation to the inventory account balances and changes.
• Computing the inventory turnover ratio and days-to-sell ratio. Do these ratios make sense in relation to what the auditor has verified regarding the physical aspects of the inventory?
• Computing the percentage of gross profit and the related percentage of the cost of goods sold, and then the trend to look for understatement of the cost of goods sold percentage.
• Ensuring there is a consistent use of the inventory cost flow assumption. For example, the use of first-in-first out (FIFO) gives a higher net income in an inflationary environment.

It was the large number of items comprising the inventory that made it an attractive target for fraudulent manipulation at Prison Industries. Theft and misuse are the actions of choice when it comes to inventory fraud. The rationale typically Is: “Who is going to miss a few hundred widgets in an inventory of thousands, perhaps millions?” The size of inventory as a percentage of the amount of total assets also makes it an easy target for management-initiated financial reporting misstatement. Having the possibility of two types of fraudulent acts ganging up on inventories at the same time, the CFE doesn’t want to waste time going down the wrong path, so it’s very important to determine which fraudulent act is likely occurring.

Any discussion of fraud likelihood involves the concepts of concealment, conversion, and opportunity. So, in addition to “how” the Inventory fraud took place, other questions need to be addressed, such as: How sophisticated is the concealment strategy? Who has the most benefit to gain by the theft, misuse, or misstatement of the inventories? Who has and where are the opportunities to divert/misstate inventories? These are the questions that need to be answered by the CFE/auditor, and fortunately, the tools and guidance are available from the ACFE to achieve the right answers when faced with almost any pattern of inventory fraud.

Trust but Check

The community support for a business, and business in general, depends on the credibility that stakeholders place in corporate commitments, the company’s reputation, and the strength of its competitive advantage. All of these depend on the trust that stakeholders place in a company’s activities. Trust, in turn, depends on the values underlying corporate activities. Off-shore accounts, manipulation of shell corporations to evade taxes, loan fraud and management self-dealing are just a few instances of the moral cancer that, drop by drop, erodes trust until the point where the free enterprise systems of democratic nations are replaced by naked oligarchy, kleptocracy and cultures of corruption.

If the interests of all stakeholders are systematically not respected, then action that continues to be often painful to shareholders, officers, and directors usually occurs. In fact, it is unlikely that businesses or professions can achieve their long-run strategic objectives without the support of key stakeholders, such as shareholders, employees, customers, creditors, suppliers, governments, and host communities.

A constant theme and trend (as echoed in the trade press) has become increasingly more evident since the turn of the century. The judgment and moral character of executives, owners, boards of directors, and auditors has been often insufficient, on their own, to prevent increasingly severe corporate, ethical, and governance scandals. Governments and regulators world-wide have been required to constantly tighten guidelines and governance regulations to assure the protection of the public. The self-interested lure of greed has proven to be too strong for many to resist, and they have succumbed to conflicts of interest when left too much on their own. Corporations that were once able to shift jurisdictions to avoid new regulations regarding tax and other matters now are facing global measures designed to expose and control questionable ethics and governance practices. Assurance professionals themselves, of all types, are also facing international standards of behavior.

These changes have come about because of the pressures brought to bear on corporations and management by the reporting of scandals and abuses by a still potent free press and by suits by activist investors and other involved stakeholders. But changes in laws, regulations, and standards are only part of what stakeholders have contributed. The expectations for good ethical behavior and good governance practices have changed. Failure to comply with these expectations now impacts reputations, profits, and careers even if the behavior is strictly within legal boundaries.

As ACFE training tells us, it’s become increasingly evident to most executives, owners, and auditors that their individual success is directly related to their ability to develop and maintain a corporate culture of integrity. They cannot afford the loss of reputation, revenue, reliability, and credibility as a result of a loss of integrity. It is no longer an effective, sustainable, or medium or long-term strategy to project or practice questionable ethics. ACFE training goes on to indicate a number of causes, or signs, of ethical problems within any given corporation:

— Pressure to meet goals, especially financial ones, at any cost;
–A culture that does not foster open and candid conversation and discussion;
–A CEO who is surrounded by people who will agree and flatter the CEO, as well as a CEO whose reputation is ‘beyond criticism’;
–Weak boards that do not exercise their fiduciary responsibilities with diligence;
–An organization that promotes people on the basis of nepotism and favoritism;
–Hubris. The arrogant belief that rules are for other people, but not for us;
–A flawed cost/benefit attitude that suggests that poor ethical behavior in one area can be offset by good ethical behavior in another area.

The LIBOR rate scandal of 2012 is an almost perfect example of ethical collapse and manifests a majority of the red flags enumerated above. The scandal featured the systematic manipulation of a benchmark interest rate, supported by a culture of fraud in the world’s biggest banks, in an environment where little or no regulation prevailed. After decades of abuse that enriched the big banks, their shareholders, executives and traders, at the expense of others, investigations and lawsuits were finally undertaken resulting in prosecutions and huge penalties for the banks and the individual traders involved.

The London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) rate is a rate of interest, first computed in 1985 by the British Banking Association (BBA), the Bank of England and others, to serve as a readily available reference or benchmark rate for many financial contracts and arrangements. Prior to its creation, contracts utilized many privately negotiated rates, which were difficult to verify, and not necessarily related to the market rate for the security in question. The LIBOR rate, which is the average interest rate estimated by leading banks that they would be charged if they were to borrow from other banks, provided a simple alternative that came to be widely used.

At the time of the LIBOR scandal, 18 of the largest banks in the world provided their estimates of the costs they would have had to pay for a variety of interbank loans (loans from other banks) just prior to 11:00 a.m. on the submission day. These estimates were submitted to Reuters news agency (who acted for the BBA) for calculation of the average, and its publication, and dissemination. Reuters set aside the four highest and four lowest estimates and averaged the remaining ten.

So huge were the investments affected that a small manipulation in the LIBOR rate could have a very significant impact on the profit of the banks and of the traders involved in the manipulation.

Insiders to the banking system knew about the manipulation of LIBOR rate submissions for decades, but changes were not made until the public became aware of the problem, and until the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) forced the U.K. government to act. The president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank (Fed), at that time emailed the governor of the Bank of England in June 2008, suggesting ways to “enhance” LIBOR. Although ensuing emails report agreement on the suggestions, and articles appeared in the trade press from 2008 to 2011, serious changes were not applied until October 2012 when the U.K. government accepted the recommendations of the Wheatley Review of Libor. This Review by Martin Wheatley, managing director of British Financial Services Authority, was commissioned in June 2012 in view of investigations, charges and settlements that were raising public awareness of LIBOR deficiencies.

One of the motivations for creating the Wheatley Review involved the prosecution of a former UBS and later Citigroup Inc. trader, on criminal fraud charges for manipulating the LIBOR rates. The trader, known to insiders as the “Rain Man” for his abilities and demeanor, allegedly sought his superiors approval before attempting to influence the LIBOR rates, an act that some observers thought at the time would provide a strong defense against conviction.

Insiders who knew of LIBOR manipulations were generally reluctant to take a public stand for earlier change. However, on July 27, 2012, a former trader for Morgan Stanley in London, published an article that told of his earlier attempts to bring LIBOR rate manipulations to the attention of authorities, but without success. In his article, he indicated how he learned as a new trader in 1991 that the banks manipulated their rate submissions to make profit on specific contracts, and to mask liquidity problems such as during the subprime lending crisis of 2008. For example, if the LIBOR rate submissions were misstated to be low, the discounted valuation of related assets would be raised, thus providing misleadingly higher levels of short-term, near-cash assets than should have been reported.

Numerous studies since the scandal have detailed the effects of unethical LIBOR manipulation. Just two examples of such manipulation. At the time of the scandal many home owners borrowed their mortgage loans on a variable- or adjustable-rate basis, rather than a fixed-rate basis. Consequently, many of these borrowers received a new rate at the first of every month based on the LIBOR rate. A study prepared for a class action lawsuit has shown that on the first of each month for the period 2007-2009, the LIBOR rate rose more than 7.5 basis points on average. As a consequence, one observer estimated that each LIBOR submitting bank may be liable for as much as $2.3 billion.

Municipalities raise funds through the issue of bonds, and many were encouraged to issue variable-rate, rather than fixed-rate, bonds to take advantage of lower interest payments. For example, the saving could be as much as $1 million on a $100 million bond. After issue, the municipalities were encouraged to buy interest rate swaps from their investment banks to hedge their risk of volatility in the variable rates by converting or swapping into a fixed rate arrangement. The seller of the swap agrees to pay the municipality for any requirement to pay interest at more than the fixed rate agreed if interest rates rise, but if interest rates fall the swap seller buys the bonds at the lower variable interest rate. However, the variable rate was linked to the LIBOR rate, which was artificially depressed, thus costing U.S. municipalities as much as $10 billion. Class action suits were eventually launched to recover these losses, which cost municipalities, hospitals, and other non-profits as much as $600 million a year.

At the end of the day, trust in each other and in our counter-parties is all we really have as economic actors; CFEs and forensic accountants thus have a vital role to play in investigating, documenting and assisting in the identification and possible prosecution of those, like the LIBOR manipulators, who knowingly collude in making the choice to violate that trust.

Loose Ends

A forensic accountant colleague of mine often refers to “loose-ends”. In his telling, loose-ends are elements of an investigation that get over-looked or insufficiently investigated which have the power to come back and bite an examiner with ill effect. That a small anomaly may be a sign of fraud is a fact that is no surprise to any seasoned investigator. Since fraud is typically hidden, the discovery of fraud usually is unlikely, at least at the beginning, to involve a huge revelation.

The typical audit does not presume that those the auditor examiners and the documents s/he reviews have something sinister about them. The overwhelming majority of audits are conducted in companies in which material fraud does not exist. However, the auditor maintains constant awareness that material fraud could be present.

Imagine a policewoman walking down a dark alley into which she knows a suspect has entered just before her. She doesn’t know where the suspect is, but as she walks down that alley, she is acutely aware of and attuned to her surroundings. Her senses are at their highest level. She knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that danger lurks nearby.

Fraud audits (and audits in general) aren’t like that. Fraud audits are more like walking through a busy mall and watching normal people go about their daily activities. In the back of the examiner’s mind, he knows that among all the shoppers are a few, a very few, shoplifters. They look just like everyone else. The examiner knows they are there because statistical studies and past experience have shown that they are, but he doesn’t know exactly where or who they are or when he will encounter them, if at all. If he were engaged to find them, he would have to design procedures to increase the likelihood of discovery without in any way annoying the substantial majority of honest shoppers in whose midst they swim.

A fraud risk assessment evaluates areas of potential fraud to determine whether the current control structure and environment are addressing fraud risk at a level that aligns with the organization’s risk appetite and risk tolerance. Therefore, it is important during the development and implementation of the risk management program to specifically address various fraud schemes to establish the correct levels of control.

It occurred to me a while back that a fraud risk assessment can of thought of as ignoring a loose-end if it fails to include sufficient consideration of the client organization’s ethical dimension. That the ethical dimension is not typically included as a matter of course in the routine fraud risk assessment constitutes, to my mind, a lost opportunity to conduct a fuller, and potentially, a more useful assessment. As part of their assessments, today’s practitioners can potentially use surveys, Control Self-Assessment sessions, focus groups, and workshops with employees to take the organization’s ethical temperature and determine its ethical baseline. Under this expanded model, the most successful fraud risk assessment would include small brainstorming sessions with the operational management of the business process(s) under review. Facilitated by a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE), these assessments would look at typical fraud schemes encountered in various areas of the organization and identify the internal controls designed to mitigate each of them. At a high level, this analysis examines internal controls and the internal control environment, as well as resources available to prevent, detect, and deter fraud.

Fraud risk assessments emphasize possible collusion and management overrides to circumvent internal controls. Although an internal control might be in place to prevent fraudulent activity, the analysis must consider how this control could be circumvented, manipulated, or avoided. This evaluation can help the CFE understand the actual robustness and resilience of the control and of the control environment and estimate the potential risk to the organization.

One challenge at this point in the process is ensuring that the analysis assesses not just roles, but also those specific individuals who are responsible for the controls. Sometimes employees will feel uncomfortable contemplating a fellow employee or manager perpetrating fraud. This is where an outside fraud expert like the CFE can help facilitate the discussion and ensure that nothing is left off the table. To ask and get the answers to the right questions, the CFE facilitator should help the respondents keep in mind that:

o Fraud entails intentional misconduct designed to avoid detection.
o Risk assessments identify where fraud might occur and who the potential perpetrator(s) might be.
o Persons inside and outside of the organization could perpetrate such schemes.
o Fraud perpetrators typically exploit weaknesses in the system of controls or may override or circumvent controls.
o Fraud perpetrators typically find ways to hide the fraud from detection.

It’s important to evaluate whether the organization’s culture promotes ethical or unethical decision-making. Unfortunately, many organizations have established policies and procedures to comply with various regulations and guidelines without committing to promoting a culture of ethical behavior. Simply having a code of conduct or an ethics policy is not enough. What matters is how employees act when confronted with an ethical choice; this is referred to by the ACFE as measuring the organization’s ethical baseline.

Organizations can determine their ethical baseline by periodically conducting either CFE moderated Control Self-Assessment sessions including employees from high-risk business processes, through an online survey of employees from various areas and levels within the organization, or through workshop-based surveys using a balloting tool that can keep responses anonymous. The broader the survey population, the more insightful the results will be. For optimal results, surveys should be short and direct, with no more than 15 to 20 questions that should only take a few minutes for most employees to answer. An important aspect of conducting this survey is ensuring the anonymity of participants, so that their answers are not influenced by peer pressure or fear of retaliation. The survey can ask respondents to rate questions or statements on a scale, ranging from 1—Strongly Disagree to 5—Strongly Agree. Sample statements might include:

1. Our organizational culture is trust-based.
2. Missing approvals are not a big deal here.
3. Strong personalities dominate most departments.
4. Pressure to perform outweighs ethical behavior.
5. I share my passwords with my co-workers.
6. Retaliation will not be accepted here.
7. The saying “Don’t rock the boat!” fits this organization.
8. I am encouraged to speak up whenever needed.
9. Ethical behavior is a top priority of management.
10.I know where I can go if I need to report a potential issue of misconduct.

The ethical baseline should not be totally measured on a point system, nor should the organization be graded based on the survey results. The results should simply be an indicator of the organization’s ethical environment and a tool to identify potential areas of concern. If repeated over time, the baseline can help identify both positive and negative trends. The results of the ethical baseline survey should be discussed by the CFE with management as part of a broader fraud risk assessment project. This is especially important if there are areas with a lack of consensus among the survey respondents. For example, if the answer to a question is split down the middle between strongly agree and strongly disagree, this should be discussed to identify the root cause of the variance. Most questions should be worded to either show strong ethical behaviors or to raise red flags of potential unethical issues or inability to report such issues promptly to the correct level in the organization.

In summary, the additional value created by combining of the results of the traditional fraud risk assessment with an ethical baseline assessment can help CFEs better determine areas of risk and control that should be considered in building the fraud prevention and response plans. For example, fraud risk schemes that are heavily dependent on controls that can be easily overridden by management may require more frequent assurance from prevention professionals than those schemes that are mitigated by system-based controls. And an organization with a weak ethical baseline may require more frequent assessment of detective control procedures than one with a strong ethical baseline, which might rely on broader entity-level controls. By adding ethical climate evaluation to their standard fraud risk assessment procedures, CFEs can tie up what otherwise might be a major loose-end in their risk evaluation.

When You Assume

by Rumbi Petrozzello
2018 Vice President – Central Virginia ACFE Chapter

On November 8, 2007, in the small town of Constantine, Michigan, 11-year-old Jodi Parrack was reported missing. Residents from the surrounding region volunteered to search for the missing girl, including Ray McCann, a police reservist. During the search, Ray suggested to Jodi’s mother, Valerie, that they should search for Jodi in the local cemetery. Valerie and Ray did so and, tragically, found her daughter there; she had been murdered.

Almost immediately, Ray came under suspicion. His reaction to Jodi’s death appeared to some of the investigators to be suspicious and why had he suggested that he and Valerie go to the cemetery, of all places, to look for Jodi? Then, during their subsequent investigation, the police found Jodi’s DNA on Ray’s body; according to Ray this was because he had pulled Valerie away from Jodi when he and her mother discovered the child’s body.

For years, Ray was under suspicion. He was brought in for questioning by the police on multiple occasions, and his answers, as far as the police were concerned, were not particularly convincing. He claimed to have been in one place and the police said that there was proof that he was not there. Seven years after Jodi’s murder, Ray was arrested and charged with perjury, related to the answers he had originally given the police; this seems to have been a tactic the police employed to hold him while they continued to try to gather enough evidence to charge him with Jodi’s murder.

While Ray was being held and facing from two to twenty years behind bars, another girl was attacked; she fought back, escaped and led the police to another man, Daniel Furlong. It turned out that Furlong’s DNA had been found on Jodi’s body during the original investigation as well as Ray’s and yet, the police had persisted in focusing solely on Ray. It was also revealed that the authorities were not honest when they told Ray that they possessed evidence Ray was lying. All the police really had was a deeply held conviction that Ray was being deceptive, leading to their determination to somehow develop evidence to validate that feeling.

By the time Ray was released after spending 20 wasted months of his life behind bars, he had lost his job, his family and the trust of the community in which he lived and which he had hoped someday to serve.

As Fraud Examiners and/or Forensic Accountants, we are engaged to investigate alleged wrongdoing and to follow up on leads as we work to resolve often confusing and contradictory matters. As we seek evidence, interview people and try to figure out what happened and who did what, it can be all too easy to make the mistake of viewing a red flag as somehow constituting proof. If someone giggles when they’re telling you they know nothing; if a person taps her foot throughout an interview, or if someone is extremely helpful, none of those things in themselves means anything definitive in resolving the question as to whether or not they have done anything wrong, let alone illegal.

Professional skepticism is a CFE’s tendency not to believe or take anyone’s assertions at face value, a mental tendency to ask every assertion to “prove it” (with evidence). The inevitable occurrence of confusion, errors and deception in all situations involving actual or suspected fraud dictates this basic aspect of professional skepticism. Persuading a skeptical CFE or forensic accountant is not impossible, just somewhat more difficult than persuading a normal person in an everyday context. Our skepticism protects the Ray McCann’s of this world because it’s a manifestation of objectivity, holding no special concern for preconceived conclusions on any side of an issue. Skepticism is not an attitude of being cynical, hypercritical, or scornful. The properly skeptical investigator asks these questions (1) What do I need to know? (2) How well do I know it? (3) Does it make sense?

Professional skepticism should lead investigators to appropriate inquiry about every clue involving seeming wrong doing. Clues should lead to thinking about the evidence needed, wringing out all the implications from the evidence, then arriving at the most suitable and supportable explanation. Time pressure to complete an investigation is no excuse for failing to exercise professional skepticism and bias and prejudice are always unacceptable. Too many investigators (including auditors) have gotten themselves into trouble by accepting some respondent’s glib assertion and stopping too early in an investigation without seeking facts supportive of alternative explanations.

A red flag means only that further investigation is warranted; it definitely does not mean that the examiner should shut down all other avenues of investigation and it certainly does not mean that an attempt should ever be made to make the crime fit the person. In the sad case of Ray McCann, the police continued to pursue him to the exclusion of all others even though they had found someone else’s DNA on Jodi’s body. They never appeared to be even looking for any other suspect. Even when Daniel Furlong subsequently confessed to murdering Jodi, the local authorities still persisted in implying that Ray was somehow connected to the crime; in the face of all contradictory evidence, the police still stubbornly refused to let go of their original hypothesis.

As we pursue our work as forensic accountants and fraud examiners, we should be constantly reviewing our hypotheses and assessing our approaches.

• Are we trying to make evidence fit the facts as we initially suppose them to be?
• Are we ignoring evidence because it does not fit the story we’re trying to tell?
• Are we letting a particular person’s behavior cloud a more objective judgment of the totality of what’s going on?

Often, even after a person has been cleared of suspicion in a case, we hear parties involved in the investigation make statements along the lines of, “I just know they are good for something.” Fortunately, our practice is not founded on feelings and gut instincts; our practice, and profession, is one that relies on evidence. As you’re investigating a matter, keep in mind:

• Following your defined process and procedure throughout is paramount to investigative success. Even if someone or some aspect of a case looks totally transparent within the context of the investigation, be thorough and follow your evidence all the way through.

• If your findings do not support your original premise, don’t try to force things. Step back and ask yourself why this is the case. Ask yourself if you need to reconsider your foundational hypothesis.

• Beware of confirmation bias – that is be careful that you are not looking only for data that reinforces the conclusion(s) that you have already reached (and, in so doing, ignoring anything that might prove contradictory).

• Even if your team is determined to work the assignment in a particular direction, make sure you speak up and let them know about any reservations you might have. You may not have the popular position, but you may end up expressing the critical position if it turns out that there is other evidence in light of which the conclusions the team has made need to be adjusted.

In summary, when you feel it in your gut and you are absolutely sure that you are right about a hypothesis, it’s very difficult to look beyond your conviction and to see or even consider other options. It’s vital that you do so since, as the ACFE has pointed out so many times, there is a hefty price to be paid professionally for ignoring evidence which eventually proves to be critical simply because it appears not to corroborate your case. Due professional care requires a disposition to question all material assertions made by all respondents involved in the case whether oral or written. This attitude must be balanced with an open mind about the integrity of all concerned. We CFEs should neither blindly assume that everyone is dishonest nor thoughtlessly assume that those involved in our investigations are not ethically challenged. The key lies in the examiner’s attitude toward gathering the evidence necessary to reach reasonable and supportable investigative decisions.

Using Control to Foster a Culture of Honesty

One of the most frequent questions we seem to receive as practicing CFEs from clients and corporate counsel alike regards the proactive steps management can take to create what’s commonly designated a ‘culture of honesty’. What kinds of programs and controls can an entity implement to create such a culture and to prevent fraud?

The potential of being caught most often persuades likely perpetrators not to commit a contemplated fraud. As the ACFE has long told us, because of this principle, the existence of a thorough control system is essential to any effective program of fraud prevention and constitutes one of the most vital underpinnings of an honest culture.

Corporations and other organizations can be held liable for criminal acts committed as a matter of organizational policy. Fortunately, most organizations do not expressly set out to break the law. However, corporations and other organizations may also be held liable for the criminal acts of their employees if those acts are perpetrated in the course and scope of their employment and for the ostensible purpose of benefiting the corporation. An employee’s acts are considered to be in the course and scope of employment if the employee has actual authority or apparent authority to engage in those acts. Apparent authority means that a third party would reasonably believe the employee is authorized to perform the act on behalf of the company. Therefore, an organization could be held liable for something an employee does on behalf of the organization even if the employee is not authorized to perform that act.

An organization will not be vicariously liable for the acts of an employee unless the employee acted for the ostensible purpose of benefiting the corporation. This does not mean the corporation has to receive an actual benefit from the illegal acts of its employee. All that is required is that the employee intended to benefit the corporation. A company cannot seek to avoid vicarious liability for the acts of its employees by simply claiming that it did not know what was going on. Legally speaking, an organization is deemed to have knowledge of all facts known by its officers and employees. That is, if a prosecutor can prove that an officer or employee knew of conduct that raised a question as to the company’s liability, and the prosecutor can show that the company willfully failed to act to correct the situation, then the company may be held liable, even if senior management had no knowledge or suspicion of the wrongdoing.

In addition, the evolving legal principle of ‘conscious avoidance’ allows the government to prove the employer had knowledge of a particular fact which establishes liability by showing that the employer knew there was a high probability the fact existed and consciously avoided confirming the fact. Employers cannot simply turn a blind eye when there is reason to believe that there may be criminal conduct within the organization. If steps are not taken to deter the activity, the company itself may be found liable. The corporation can be held criminally responsible even if those in management had no knowledge of participation in the underlying criminal events and even if there were specific policies or instructions prohibiting the activity undertaken by the employee(s). The acts of any employee, from the lowest clerk on up to the CEO, can impute liability upon a corporation. In fact, a corporation can be criminally responsible for the collective knowledge of several of its employees even if no single employee intended to commit an offense. Thus, the combination of vicarious or imputed corporate criminal liability and the current U.S. Sentencing Guidelines for Organizations can create a risk for corporations today.

Although many of our client companies do not realize it, the current legal environment imposes a responsibility on companies to ferret out employee misconduct and to deal with any known or suspected instances of misconduct by taking timely and decisive measures.

First, the doctrine of accountability suggests that officers and directors aware of potentially illegal conduct by senior employees may be liable for any recurrence of similar misconduct and may have an obligation to halt and cure any continuing effects of the initial misconduct.

Second, the Corporate Sentencing Guidelines, provide stiff penalties for corporations that fail to take voluntary action to redress apparent misconduct by senior employees.

Third, the Private Litigation Securities Reform Act requires, as a matter of statute, that independent auditors look for, and assess, management’s response to indications of fraud or other potential illegality. Where the corporation does not have a history of responding to indications of wrongdoing, the auditors may not be able to reach a conclusion that the company took appropriate and prompt action in response to indications of fraud.

Fourth, courts have held that a director’s duty of care includes a duty to attempt in good faith to assure corporate information and reporting systems exist. These systems must be reasonably designed to provide senior management and the board of directors timely, accurate information which would permit them to reach informed judgments concerning the corporation’s compliance with law and its business performance. In addition, courts have also stated that the failure to create an adequate compliance system, under some circumstances, could render a director liable for losses caused by non-compliance with applicable legal standards. Therefore, directors should make sure that their companies have a corporate compliance plan in place to detect misconduct and deal with it effectively. The directors should then monitor the company’s adherence to the compliance program. Doing so will help the corporation avoid fines under the Sentencing Guidelines and help prevent individual liability on the part of the directors and officers.

The control environment sets the moral tone of an organization, influencing the control consciousness of the organization and providing a foundation for all other control components. This component considers whether managers and employees within the organization exhibit integrity in their activities. COSO envisions that upper management will be responsible for the control environment of organizations. Employees look to management for guidance in most business affairs, and organizational ethics are no different. It is important for upper management to operate in an ethical manner, and it is equally important for employees to view management in a positive light. Managers must set an appropriate moral tone for the operations of an organization.

In addition to merely setting a good example, however, COSO suggests that upper management take direct control of an organization’s efforts at internal controls. This idea should be regularly reinforced within the organization. There are several actions that management can take to establish the proper control environment for an organization and foster a culture of honesty. These include:

–The establishment of a code of ethics for the organization. The code should be disseminated to all employees and every new employee should be required to read and sign it. The code should also be disseminated to contractors who do work on behalf of the organization. Under certain circumstances, companies may face liability due to the actions of independent contractors. It is therefore very important to explain the organization’s standards to any outside party with whom the organization conducts business.

–Careful screening of job applicants. One of the easiest ways to establish a strong moral tone for an organization is to hire morally sound employees. Too often, the hiring process is conducted in a slipshod manner. Organizations should conduct thorough background checks on all new employees, especially managers. In addition, it is important to conduct thorough interviews with applicants to ensure that they have adequate skills to perform the duties that will be required of them.

–Proper assignment of authority and responsibility. In addition to hiring qualified, ethical employees, it is important to put these people in situations where they are able to thrive without resorting to unethical conduct. Organizations should provide employees with well-defined job descriptions and performance goals. Performance goals should be routinely reviewed to ensure that they do not set unrealistic standards. Training should be provided on a consistent basis to ensure that employees maintain the skills to perform effectively. Regular training on ethics will also help employees identify potential trouble spots and avoid getting caught in compromising situations. Finally, management should quickly determine where deficiencies in an employee’s conduct exist and work with the employee to fix the problem.

–Effective disciplinary measures. No control environment will be effective unless there is consistent discipline for ethical violations. Consistent discipline requires a well-defined set of sanctions for violations, and strict adherence to the prescribed disciplinary measures. If one employee is punished for an act and another employee is not punished for a similar act, the moral force of the company’s ethics policy will be diminished. The levels of discipline must be sufficient to deter violations. It may also be advisable to reward ethical conduct. This will reinforce the importance of organizational ethics in the eyes of employees.

Monitoring is the process that assesses the quality of a control environment over time. This component should include regular evaluations of the entire control system. It also requires the ongoing monitoring of day-to-day activities by managers and employees. This may involve reviewing the accuracy of financial information, or verifying inventories, supplies, equipment and other organization assets. Finally, organizations should conduct independent evaluations of their internal control systems. An effective monitoring system should provide for the free flow of upstream communication.