Category Archives: Corporate Governance

It’s a Reputation Thing

According to the ACFE presenter at one of our live events, 6.4 percent of worldwide fraud cases occur in the education sector, which represents the fifth most-targeted industry by fraudsters out of 23 reported by members of the ACFE. And the three most frequent fraud schemes reported as perpetrated in the education sector are billing schemes, fraudulent expense reimbursements and corruption schemes. Most of the reporting CFE’s also seem to agree that nonprofit institutions’ greatest fraud related challenge is mitigating reputational risk. Good faculty members and students won’t join fraudulent universities. Governments and donors won’t financially contribute to organizations they don’t trust.

Thus, institutions of higher learning aren’t anymore immune to fraud than any other large organization. However, the probability of occurrence of fraud risks may be somewhat higher in colleges and universities because of their promoted environment of collegiality, which may lead to more decentralization and a consequent lack of basic internal controls. Federal and state governments, as well as donors, have increased the pressure on universities to implement better governance practices and on their boards of governors to exercise their fiduciary responsibilities more efficiently.

Which brought our speaker to the issue of regular risk assessments, but tailored specifically to the unique needs of the educational environment. Colleges and universities around the world should be actively encouraged by their governing boards and counsels to perform regular fraud risk assessments and vigorously implement and enforce compliance with targeted internal controls, such as proper segregation of duties and surprise audits. Of course, as with all organizations, universities can prevent fraud by segregating a task of requesting a financial transaction from those of approving it, processing the payment, reconciling the transaction to the appropriate accounts and safeguarding the involved asset(s). Surprise audits should be just that: unannounced supervisory reviews. This creates not just an atmosphere of collegiality and support but one in which the perceived opportunity to commit fraud is lowered.

As I’ve indicated again and again in the pages of this blog, the most powerful fraud prevention measure any organization can take is the education of its staff, top to bottom. Educating faculty, staff members and students about the university’s ethics (or anti-fraud) policies is important not only to prevent fraud but to preserve the institution’s reputation. It’s also important to develop ethics policies carefully and implement them in accordance with the particular culture and character of the institution.

Culturally, universities, like most nonprofit educational institutions, don’t like heavy-handed policies, or controls, because faculty members perceive them as impediments to their research and teaching activities. After going through an appropriate anti-fraud training program, every employee and faculty member (many higher-education institutions actually view faculty above the instructor level as quasi-independent contractors) should come to understand the nature and role of internal controls as well as the negative consequences associated with fraud.

University administrators, faculty and staff members can be motivated to prevent fraud on a basis of self-interest because its occurrence might affect their chances of promotions and salary increases and tarnish the external reputation of the university, which could then affect its financial situation and, hence, their individual prospects.

ACFE training tells us that organizational administrators who don’t get honest feedback and don’t hear and address fraud tips quickly can get in trouble politically, legally and strategically. All universities should implement user-friendly reporting mechanisms that allow anyone to anonymously report fraud and irregular activities plus deliver healthy feedback on leadership’s strengths and weaknesses. This will keep direct lines of communication open among all employees and senior university administrators. These tools will not only strengthen the fight against fraud but also advance the university’s strategic mission and refine senior administrators’ leadership styles. You can’t manage something you can’t see. Such tried and true mechanisms as independent internal audit departments and/or involved audit committees, should provide effective oversight of reporting mechanisms.

Still, many universities still resist pressure from their external stakeholders to implement hotlines because of concern they might create climates of mistrust among faculty members. Faculty members’ tendency to resist any effort to have their work examined and questioned may explain this resistance. Necessary cultural changes take some time, but educational institutions can achieve them with anti-fraud training and a substantial dose of ethical leadership and tone at the top.

From a legal perspective, colleges and universities, like any other nonprofit organization, must proactively demonstrate due diligence by adopting measures to prevent fraud and damage to their individual reputations. They’re also financially and ethically indebted to governments and donors to educate tomorrow’s leaders by demonstrating their ability to ensure that their internal policies and practices are sound.

Senior university administrators also must be able to show that they investigate all credible allegations of fraud. In addition, independent, professional and confidential fraud investigations conducted by you, the CFE, allow a victim university and its senior administrators to:

— determine the exact sources of losses and hopefully identify the perpetrator(s);
— potentially recover some or all of financial damages;
— collect evidence for potential criminal or civil lawsuits;
— avoid possible discrimination charges from terminated employees;
— identify internal control weaknesses and address them;
— reduce future losses and meet budget targets;
— comply with legal requirements such as senior administrators’ fiduciary duties of loyalty and reasonable care;
— reduce imputed university liability which may result from employee misconduct;

As CFE’s we should encourage client universities to adequately train and sensitize administrators, faculty and staff members about their ethics policies and the general problems related to occupational fraud in general. Administrators should also consider implementation of anonymous reporting programs and feedback processes among all stakeholders and among the senior administration. They should perform regular fraud risk assessments and implement targeted internal controls, such as proper segregation of duties and conflict-of-interest disclosures. Senior administrators should lead by example and adopt irreproachable behaviors at all times (tone at the top). Finally, faculty members’ job incentives should be aligned with the university’s mission and goals to avoid dysfunctional and illegal practices. All easier said than done, but, as a profession, let’s encourage them to do it when we have the chance!

Better Call Saul

As reported so often in the press these last few years, even when well-intentioned employees feel they’re doing the right thing by reporting acts of wrongdoing, their reports aren’t always well received. Numerous studies conducted by the ACFE strikingly bear this out. And this is so much the case that any employee (public or private) who witnesses acts of wrongdoing and decides to report them is well advised to seek legal counsel before doing so. When a whistle-blower also happens to be a CFE, the same advice applies. Every CFE should learn just when, where, and how to report fraudulent acts before blowing the whistle, if only so they can comply with the often complex procedures required to receive any available protections against retaliation.

All the U.S. states have laws to protect public sector employees from retaliation for whistle-blowing. Indeed, most of the state whistle-blowing laws were enacted specifically to actively encourage public sector employees to report fraud, waste, and abuse both in and without government agencies. Some state laws protect only public employees; others include government contractors and private-sector employees as well. Many of the laws protecting private sector employees involve workplace safety. They were designed and enacted decades ago to protect employees from retaliation when reporting occupational safety issues. Public and private employees can use them, but they might not apply in all situations. Over the years, reporting in some other specific situations has also received protection.

Facts to keep in mind. Whistle-blowing, as it relates to fraud, is the act of reporting fraud, waste, and abuse. Reporting any act of wrongdoing is considered whistle-blowing, regardless if it’s reported by a public or private employee or to persons inside or outside of the victim organization. Anyone can report wrongdoing, but the subsequent level of protection against retaliation an employee will receive will differ depending on whether they’re public or private, to whom they report, the manner in which they report, the type of wrongdoing they report, and the law(s) under which they report. The ACFE tells us that a majority of unprotected whistle-blowers end up being terminated. Among those unterminated, some are suspended, some transferred against their wishes and some are given poor performance evaluations, demoted or harassed. To address their situation, some choose recourse to the courts. The rub here is that to prevail, the employee will probably have to link their whistleblowing directly to the retaliation. This can be difficult for the employee experiencing any kind of current problem in the workplace because employers will claim their adverse personnel actions were based on the employees’ poor performance and not on the employees’ decision to blow the whistle. It’s especially easy for employers to assert this claim if the person who conducted the retaliation claims no knowledge of the whistle-blowing, which is very frequently the case.

Additionally, many whistle-blowers lose their cases because they didn’t comply with some technicality in the laws. Protection laws are very specific on how whistle-blowers must report the wrongdoing. Failing to comply with any aspect of the law will result in a loss of protection. Some examples:

• Subject Matter Jurisdiction – the court must have the power to hear the kind of issue in the whistle-blower’s suit. Subject matter jurisdiction is based on the law the whistle-blower plans to use. Generally speaking, federal courts hear violations of federal laws and state courts hear violations of state laws, although this isn’t always the case. Employees can file alleged violations of their civil rights in state or federal courts under Section 1983 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code of
Federal Regulations. While rarely used in the past, today Section 1983 is part of the Civil Rights Act and the primary means of enforcing all Constitutional rights. Subject Matter Jurisdiction can help employees decide to file in federal or state court. Of course, the employer might ask to have the case moved to another court.

• Personal Jurisdiction – the employee should make sure the court has power over the party s/he wants to sue. A court must have personal jurisdiction over the defendant to hear a case. Courts usually have personal jurisdiction over the people and organizations residing or doing business in their jurisdiction.

• Venue – venue refers to the court that will hear the employee’s case. The proper venue is the jurisdiction in which the defendant lives or does business, where the contract was signed or carried out, or the incident took place. More than one court can have jurisdiction over the case. The employee should pick the venue most convenient for her.

As I said above, most whistle-blower laws were written and are intended to protect public-sector employees who report violations affecting public health and safety. Proving public interest is easy for public-sector employees because their work involves public protection. It’s not as easy for private-sector employees. A goodly percentage of private-sector whistle-blowers lose their cases because the matters didn’t involve public policy. Whistle-blowers can improve their chances of success by preparing early and reading the whistle-blowing laws of their state of jurisdiction. The case law is also important because it shows the precedent already set by the courts. The better prepared the employee is, the less likely s/he will make avoidable mistakes. An evolving issue is the extent to which whistle-blowers must be certain of violations. Many laws already require the employee to state the specific law that was broken. Some courts require whistle-blowers to be certain of their allegations. Trends requiring certainty will make it increasingly difficult for whistle-blowers to receive protection.

As a final point. A goodly percentage of whistle-blowers fail to achieve protection each year because of their own improper conduct. Some of these whistle-blowers misused their employers’ property; some of them stole it. Employees must ensure their conduct is above scrutiny because some courts will apply the “doctrine of unclean hands” and bar whistle-blowers from protection, if they’ve engaged in misconduct directly related to their complaints. The doctrine of unclean hands can work against employers, just as it does employees. In Virginia not too long ago, a Medicaid provider submitted documents containing incorrect claims information to the court. The whistle-blower proved the information was false and won his case on those grounds alone. Thus, it’s important for employers and employees to comport themselves with integrity.

Whistle-blowers who commit unlawful acts to advance their cases don’t do well in court, but neither do whistle-blowers who refuse to commit unlawful acts on behalf of their employers. Most state whistle-blower laws are designed to protect employees that refuse to commit unlawful acts, but it can be difficult to receive even that protection.

All this by way of saying that the laws governing whistle-blower protection are many and varied. As fraud examiners and auditors it behooves us to be as familiar with these laws in the jurisdictions in which we practice as we reasonably can be. But always, when confronted with such cases, always consult counsel. As my father told me so long ago, the man or women who acts as their own attorney has a fool for a client.

Cloud Shapes

Just as clouds can take different shapes and be perceived differently, so too is cloud computing perceived differently by our various types of client companies. To some, the cloud looks like web-based applications, a revival of the old thin client. To others, the cloud looks like utility computing, a grid that charges metered rates for processing time. To some, the cloud could be parallel computing, designed to scale complex processes for improved efficiency. Interestingly, cloud services are wildly different. Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud offers full Linux machines with root access and the opportunity to run whatever apps the user chooses. Google’s App Engine will also let users run any program they want, as long as the user specifies it in a limited version of Python and uses Google’s database.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines cloud computing as a model for enabling convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications, services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort or service provider interaction. It is also important to remember what our ACFE tells us, that the Internet itself is in fact a primitive transport cloud. Users place something on the path with an expectation that it will get to the proper destination, in a reasonable time, with all parties respecting the privacy and security of the artifact.

Cloud computing, as everyone now knows, brings many advantages to users and vendors. One of its biggest advantages is that a user may no longer have to be tethered to a traditional computer to use an application, or have to buy a version of an application that is specifically configured for a phone, a tablet or other device. Today, any device that can access the Internet can run a cloud-based application. Application services are available independent of the user’s home or office devices and network interfaces. Regardless of the device being used, users also face fewer maintenance issues. End users don’t have to worry about storage capacity, compatibility or other similar concerns.

From a fraud prevention perspective, these benefits are the result of the distributed nature of the web, which necessitates a clear separation between application and interaction logic. This is because application logic and user data reside mostly on the web cloud and manifest themselves in the form of tangible user interfaces at the point of interaction, e.g., within a web browser or mobile web client. Cloud computing is also beneficial for our client’s vendors. Businesses frequently find themselves using the vast majority of their computing capacity in a small percentage of time, leaving expensive equipment often idle. Cloud computing can act as a utility grid for vendors and optimize the use of their resources. Consider, for example, a web-based application running in Amazon’s cloud. Suppose there is a sudden surge in visitors as a result of media coverage, for example. Formerly, many web applications would fail under the load of big traffic spikes. But in the cloud, assuming that the web application has been designed intelligently, additional machine instances can be launched on demand.

With all the benefits, there are related constraints. Distrust is one of the main constraints on online environments generally. particularly in terms of consumer fraud, waste and abuse protection. Although the elements that contribute to building trust can be identified in broad terms, there are still many uncertainties in defining and establishing trust in online environments. Why should users trust cloud environments to store their personal information and to share their privacy in such a large and segregated environment? This question can be answered only by investigating these uncertainties in the context of risk assessment and by exploring the relationship between trust and the way in which the risk is perceived by stakeholders. Users are assumed to be willing to disclose personal information and have that information used subsequently to store their personal data or to create consumer profiles for business use when they perceive that fair procedures are in place to protect their individual privacy.

The changing trust paradigm represented by cloud computing means that less information is stored locally on our client’s machines and is instead being hosted elsewhere on earth. No one for the most part buys software anymore; users just rent it or receive it for free using the Software as a Service (SaaS) business model. On the personal front, cloud computing means Google is storing user’s mail, Instagram their photographs, and Dropbox their documents, not to mention what mobile phones are automatically uploading to the cloud for them. In the corporate world, enterprise customers not only are using Dropbox but also have outsourced primary business functions that would have previously been handled inside the company to SaaS providers such as Salesforce.com, Zoho.com, and Box.com.

From a crime and security perspective, the aggregation of all these data, exabytes and exabytes of it, means that user’s most personal of information is no longer likely stored solely on their local hard drives but now aggregated on computer servers around the world. By aggregating important user data, financial and otherwise, on cloud-based computer servers, the cloud has obviated the need for criminals to target everybody’s hard drive individually and instead put all the jewels in a single place for criminals and hackers to target (think Willie Sutton).

The cloud is here to stay, and at this point there is no going back. But with this move to store all available data in the cloud come additional risks. Thinking of some of the largest hacks to date, Target, Heartland Payment Systems, TJX, and Sony PlayStation Network; all of these thefts of hundreds of millions of accounts were made possible because the data were stored in the same virtual location. The cloud is equally convenient for individuals, businesses, and criminals.

The virtualization and storage of all of these data is a highly complex process and raises a wide array of security, public policy, and legal issues for all CFEs and for our clients. First, during an investigation, where exactly is this magical cloud storing my defrauded client’s data? Most users have no idea when they check their status on Facebook or upload a photograph to Pinterest where in the real world this information is actually being stored. That they do not even stop to pose the question is a testament to the great convenience, and opacity, of the system. Yet from a corporate governance and fraud prevention risk perspective, whether your client’s data are stored on a computer server in America, Russia, China, or Iceland makes a difference.

ACFE guidance emphasizes that the corporate and individual perimeters that used to protect information internally are disappearing, and the beginning and end of corporate user computer networks are becoming far less well defined. It’s making it much harder for examiners and auditors to see what data are coming and going from a company, and the task is nearly impossible on the personal front. The transition to the cloud is a game changer for anti-fraud security because it completely redefines where data are stored, moved, and accessed, creating sweeping new opportunities for criminal hackers. Moreover, the non-local storage of data raises important questions about deep dependence on cloud-based information systems. When these services go down or become unavailable i.e., a denial of service attack, or the Internet connection is lost, the data become unavailable, and your client for our CFE services is out of business.

All the major cloud service providers are routinely remotely targeted by criminal attacks, including Dropbox, Google, and Microsoft, and more such attacks occur daily. Although it may be your client’s cloud service provider that is targeted in such attack, the client is the victim, and the data taken is theirs’s. Of course, the rights reserved to the providers in their terms of service agreements (and signed by users) usually mean that provider companies bear little or no liability when data breaches occur. These attacks threaten intellectual property, customer data, and even sensitive government information.

To establish trust with end users in the cloud environment, all organizations should address these fraud related risks. They also need to align their users’ perceptions with their policies. Efforts should be made to develop a standardized approach to trust and risk assessment across different domains to reduce the burden on users who seek to better understand and compare policies and practices across cloud provider organizations. This standardized approach will also aid organizations that engage in contractual sharing of consumer information, making it easier to assess risks across organizations and monitor practices for compliance with contracts. policies and law.

During the fraud risk assessment process, CFEs need to advise their individual corporate clients to mandate a given cloud based activity in which they participate to be conducted fairly and to address their privacy concerns. By ensuring this fairness and respecting privacy, organizations give their customers the confidence to disclose personal information on the cloud and to allow that information subsequently to be used to create consumer profiles for business use. Thus, organizations that understand the roles of trust and risk should be advised to continuously monitor user perceptions to understand their relation to risk aversion and risk management. Managers should not rely solely on technical control measures. Security researchers have tended to focus on the hard issues of cryptography and system design. By contrast. issues revolving around the use of computers by lay users and the creation of active incentives to avoid fraud have been relatively neglected. Many ACFE lead studies have shown that human errors are the main cause of information security incidents.

Piecemeal approaches to control security issues related to cloud environments fail simply because they are usually driven by a haphazard occurrence; reaction to the most recent incident or the most recently publicized threat. In other words, managing information security in cloud environments requires collaboration among experts from different disciplines, including computer scientists. engineers. economists, lawyers and anti-fraud assurance professionals like CFE’s, to forge common approaches.

Regulators & Silos

I was reading last week on LinkedIn about a large, highly regulated, financial institution that was defrauded over a long period of time by two different companies, both of which where its suppliers. To add insult to injury, subsequent investigation by a CFE revealed that the two vendors were subsidiaries of a third, which proved also to be a supplier of the victim concern; all three cooperated in the fraud and our victim was completely unaware prior to the investigation of any relationship between them; the kind of ignorance that can draw intense regulatory attention.

This is not as uncommon an occurrence as many might think but it is illustrative of the fact that today’s companies are increasingly forced to expend resources simply trying to understand and manage the complex web of relationships that exist between them and the organizations and people with which they deal; that is, if they want to avoid falling victim to frauds running the whole gamut from the simple to the complex. Such efforts involve gaining perspective on individual vendors and customers but extend far beyond that to include sorting through and classifying corporate hierarchies and complex business-to-business relationships involving partners, suppliers, distributors, resellers, contacts, regulators and employees.

These complex, sometimes overlapping, relationships are only exacerbated by dynamic geographic and cross-channel coordination requirements, and multiple products and customer accounts (our victim financial organization operates in three countries and has over 4,000 employees and hundreds of vendors). No fraud prevention program can be immune in the face of these challenges.

Financial companies that want to securely deliver the best experience to their stakeholders within intensified regulatory constraints need to provide themselves with a complete picture of all the critical parties in their relationships at the various points of service in the on-going process of company operations. The ability to do this requires that organizations have a better understanding of the complicated hierarchies and relationships that exist between them and their stakeholders. You cannot manage what you cannot see and you certainly cannot adequately protect it against fraud, waste and abuse.

The active study of organizational hierarchies and relationships (and their related fraud vulnerabilities) is a way of developing an integrated view of the relationship of risk among cooperating entities such as our CFE client companies between their affiliates, customers and partners, across multiple channels, geographies or applications. The identification of organizational relationships can help our client companies clearly and consistently understand how each of their affiliates, business divisions and contacts within a single multi-national enterprise fit within a broader, multidimensional context. Advanced organizational management approaches can help organizations track when key people change jobs within and between their related affiliates, vendors and companies. Advanced systems can also identify these individuals’ replacements feeding a database of who is where, vital to shifting patterns of enterprise risk.

Our client financial companies that take the time to identify and document their organizational relationships and place stakeholders into a wider hierarchical context realize a broad range of fraud, waste and abuse prevention related benefits, including:

• Enhanced ability to document regulatory compliance;
• More secure financial customer experiences, leading to enhanced reputation, increased loyalty and top-line growth;
• More confident financial reporting and more accurate revenue tracking;
• Reduction of over-all enterprise fraud risk;
• More accurate vetting of potential vendors and suppliers;
• More secure sales territory and partner program management;
• Improved security program compliance management;
• More accurate and effective fraud risk evaluation and mitigation.

The ability to place stakeholders within hierarchical context is invaluable to helping companies optimize business processes, enhance customer relationships and achieve enterprise-wide objectives like fraud prevention and mitigation. Organizations armed with the understanding provided by documented relationship contexts can improve revenues, decrease costs, meet compliance requirements, mitigate risk while realizing many other benefits.

As with our victimized financial enterprise, a company without relational data regarding vendors and other stakeholders can be unknowingly dealing with multiple suppliers who are, in fact, subsidiaries of the same enterprise, causing the company to not only inadvertently misrepresent its vendor base but, even more importantly, increase its vulnerability to fraud. Understanding the true relational context of an individual supplier may allow a company to identify areas of that vendor’s organization that represents enhanced internal control weakness or fraud risk. Conversely, an organization may fail to treat certain weakly controlled stakeholders strategically because the organization is unaware of just how much business it is doing with that stakeholder and its related subsidiaries and divisions.

Risk management has always been a core competency for organizations in general and for financial institutions in particular. However, integrated enterprise risk management (ERM) practices and corporate governance disciplines are now a regulatory imperative. Any institution that views corporate governance as merely a compliance exercise is missing the mark. Regulatory compliance is synonymous with the quality of the integrated ERM framework. Risk and control are virtually inseparable, like two sides of a coin, meaning that risks first must be identified and assessed, and then managed and mitigated by the implementation of a strong system of internal control. Accurate stake holder relational data is, therefore, critical to the effectiveness of the overall ERM process.

In today’s environment, the compliance onus rests with the regulated. In a regulatory environment where client enterprise ignorance of the situation in the client’s own overall enterprise is no longer a defense, responsibility for compliance now rests with the board and senior management to satisfy regulators that they have implemented a mature fraud prevention framework throughout the organization, effectively managing risk from the mailroom to the boardroom.

An integrated control framework with more integrated risk measures, both across risk types and economic and regulatory capital calculations, is warranted. Increased demands for self-attestation require elimination of fragmentation and silos in business and corporate governance, risk management, and compliance.

Compliance needs to be integrated into the organization’s ERM base fraud prevention framework, thereby making the management of regulatory risk a key part of effective overall compliance. Compliance needs to be seen as less of a function and more as an institutional state of mind, helping organizations to anticipate risk as well as to avoid it. Embedding compliance as a corporate discipline ensures that fraud prevention controls are entrenched in people’s roles and responsibilities more effectively than external regulations. The risk management function must not only address the compliance requirements of the organization but must also serve as an agent for improved decision making, loss reduction and competitive advantage within the marketplace.

Organizations can approach investments in corporate governance, relationship identification, risk management practices and regulatory compliance initiatives as one-off, isolated activities, or they can use these investments as an opportunity to strengthen and unify their risk culture, aligning best practices to protect and enhance stakeholder value. A silo-based approach to fraud prevention will not only be insufficient but will also result in compliance processes layered one upon the other, adding cost and duplication, and reducing the overall agility of our client’s business; in effect, increasing risk. This piecemeal reactive approach also leaves a gap between the processes designed to keep the organization in line with its regulatory obligations and the policies needed to protect and improve the franchise. Organizations are only as strong as their weakest components, like the links in a chain.

The ACFE tells us that people tend to identify with their positions, focusing more on what they do rather than on the purpose of it. This leads to narrowed vision on the job, resulting in a myopic sense of responsibility for the results produced when all positions interact. ln the event of risk management breakdowns or when results are below expectations, it is difficult for people to look beyond their silo. The enemy is out there syndrome, a byproduct of seeing only one’s own position, results in people quickly blaming someone or something outside themselves, including regulators, when negative events like long running frauds are revealed and retreating within the perceived safety of their fortress silo. This learning disability makes it almost impossible to detect the leverage that can be used on issues like fraud prevention and response that straddle the boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

However, it is particularly disconcerting that the weakest numbers by industry sector, including financial services, occur in the ACFE studies measuring organization wide accountability and people’s understanding of their accountability. My personal feeling is that much of the reason for this low score is the perpetuation of organizational silos resulting from management’s failure to adequately identify and document all of its stakeholders’ cross-organizational relationships.

Skilled for Success

Our Chapter is periodically contacted by human resource staff and others seeking CFEs for recruitment to both in-house staff and management positions. I took the opportunity afforded by one such call this last week to query the caller about what her ideal CFE candidate would look like. What attributes came to mind when she pictured the experienced CFE she was seeking? Technical ability? Investigative knowledge? Attention to detail?

All of those were certainly important, she said, but since this position would supervise others and deal directly with clients, she mentioned what she called ‘success skills’ (sometimes termed soft skills) as of over-riding importance. I asked her what she meant by success skills specifically and she said that for her and for many other human resource professionals, the culture of the organization she is recruiting for and the professional’s interpersonal behaviors and critical reasoning and judgment can frequently heavily outweigh technical skills and relevant experience. After I referred her to several folks who had furnished our Chapter with resumes for just this kind of enquiry, my caller pointed me to several sources where I could obtain information on the types of skills to which she was referring.

My somewhat cursory research revealed that some of the most common success skills employers look for and which they use to assess experienced employment candidate CFEs today include:

1. A strong work ethic — are they motivated and dedicated to getting the job done, no matter what? Will they be conscientious and do their best work?
2. A positive attitude — are they optimistic and upbeat? Will they generate good energy and good will especially with subordinates and clients?
3. Good communication skills — are they verbally articulate and good listeners? Can they make their case and express their needs in a way that builds bridges with colleagues, clients and team members?
4. Time management abilities – does the CFE candidate know how to prioritize tasks and work on a number of different projects at once? Will they use their time on the job wisely?
5. Problem-solving skills — are they resourceful and able to creatively solve problems that will inevitably arise during challenging investigations? Will they take ownership of problems or leave them for someone else?
6. Being a team player — will they work well in groups and teams? Will they be cooperative and take a leadership role when appropriate?
7. Self-confidence — do they truly believe they can do the job? Will they project a sense of calm and inspire confidence in others during investigative assignments? Will they have the courage to ask the questions that need to be asked and to freely contribute their ideas?
8. Ability to accept and learn from criticism — will they be able to handle criticism? Are they coachable and open to learning and growing as a person and as a professional no matter their present experience and authority level?
9. Flexibility/adaptability — are they able to adapt to new situations and challenges? Will they embrace change and be open to innovative ideas and investigative approaches?
10. Working well under pressure — can they handle the stress that accompanies investigative and reporting deadlines and crises? Will they be able to do their best work and come through for the employer in a pinch?

Armed with this information, I got back in touch with my caller and asked a few more questions; she was very forthcoming. It turns out that there is a wide range of questions interviewers can ask when trying to gauge the soft skills of a potential CFE hire. When it comes to interpersonal skills, my interviewee told me they may ask candidates to describe an unusual person they know and why the person may be different. Communication skills can be determined by having candidates relate their experiences with an angry or frustrated corporate counsel, client, coworker or interviewee. A popular question that is often asked to measure the ability of a candidate to work on a team is centered on the discussion of an investigative project that was not successful and how it was handled. The question of solutions to problems may also deal with negative situations and how they were overcome. Therefore, questions used to assess success skills often have an individual addressing the how and why, rather than what, where or who.

The next question I had for my respondent was regarding her opinion as to how a candidate CFE could go about acquiring and strengthening these skills since they really don’t involve the type of technical matters typically focused on in the everyday business school training curriculum. She replied that working with people who exhibit strong soft skills is an effective way of learning those skills. Many professional organizations like the ACFE run internal mentoring programs so that senior practitioners can pass on their knowledge and experience to newer professionals. Training events of local chapters of associations such as the ACFE are another good place to meet with experienced professionals who can assist with mentoring and soft skills.

It seems to me that success skill communication especially under-pin all aspects of the CFEs work. I can remember very early on in my auditing career reading that communication is not easy because something said doesn’t mean it was said correctly; something said correctly doesn’t
mean it has been heard; something heard doesn’t mean it was understood; something understood doesn’t mean it has been agreed upon; something agreed upon doesn’t mean it has been applied; something applied doesn’t mean it has been continually practiced. Communicating anything effectively as a professional is, therefore, an on-going continuous process that is almost never complete and seldom perfect.

The desire to grow professionally and develop a successful career is evident in most CFEs, as in all other professionals, and while the opportunity to be on the forefront of this challenge exists, it is not emphasized enough, hence what recruiters and human resource professionals have identified as the success skills gap. Critical success skills, such as interpersonal behavior, communication, report writing and presentation skills, that augment technical skills are important in developing a successful career. However, to the disadvantage of employees, especially young professionals, these skills are seldom even emphasized let alone actively taught in the typical workplace. Similarly, employees do not recognize the lack of or need for such skills and miss valuable opportunities to improve them.

In an increasingly information- and technology-driven society, success skills increasingly shape the structure of the workplace. This fact is found to be especially evident in the audit, investigative and information systems environments. Assurance professionals need to interact seamlessly with customers/clients, work in teams, communicate technical details and build relationships.

Managers hiring new and experienced CFEs will always ask: Is the candidate able to lead a team successfully, communicate effectively, make presentations or write an investigative report to management? These are key skills that determine promotions, raises and job success.

In summary, CFE job applicants are always weighed on their technical ability and, increasingly today, on their success skills. Employers often ask whether job candidates are the best fit for the organization or whether candidates will align well with the organization’s culture. Furthermore, as a number of headhunters have told me, employers can easily teach the technical skills. The success skills that make up a candidate’s character and demeanor are not so easily taught yet can have an enormous impact on whether a candidate eventually gets his or her dream job or the top-floor corner office. So, a mix of both cognitive and noncognitive skills, the latter such as motivation, self-esteem and perseverance, determine many life outcomes, including education, health and even involvement in crime.

To benefit from strong success skills and develop a long-term career, the foremost step for young professionals as for any other professional, is to own their career. The ability to direct and fill roles in opportunity areas highly depends on career ownership and effective personal management. Success skills are increasingly becoming the often-unrecognized element for career mastery; as recruiters tell me, the bottom line is that a full professional success depends on their mastery.

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Expert Witness or Consultant

One of our newer Chapter members submitted a comment on-line two weeks ago requesting information about the pitfalls involved in the CFE choosing to act as a consultant to a client attorney rather than as an expert witness. This is an important topic for CFEs in individual practice as well as for those serving as examiners on the staffs of private or public entities. The ACFE tells us that CFEs typically act as experts in the legal process by assisting attorneys with the financial details of a suit and testifying about these practices at trial. They analyze documents and transactions, showing how the fraud was accomplished and, when possible, who the most likely perpetrators were. The CFE is a guide and adviser for the attorney in assembling the case, and a major participant in explaining the details of a fraud scenario to a judge and jury.

In general, expert witnesses are typically brought in when required by law, as in malpractice suits where a member of a given profession must explain the infraction against professional by-laws or principles; when key points are deemed sufficiently technical or complex, such as in cooking-the-books schemes involving intricate accounting manipulations, or to assist a jury in making its decision. Federal Rule of Evidence 702 says that an expert witness with appropriate knowledge and credentials may testify in any proceeding where scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge will shed light on the dispute. Even in cases that don’t go to trial, experts may still be involved in mediation, arbitration, settlement conferences, or summary judgment motions.

Experts contribute to the trial process in numerous ways. They provide background information to guide and frame a case; during the discovery process they investigate, run tests, advise on depositions, prepare other witnesses, make exhibits, and respond to the opposition’s discovery requests; they file written opinions, which are entered as evidence into the court record; and they testify in actual proceedings should the case make it to a courtroom.

Once they accept a case, many experts immediately start assembling a narrative version of the events. This detailed summary of the facts of the case serves as the raw material for rendering an official opinion. As we’ve pointed out many times, it’s important that the text be written with care and professionalism because the text may (and probably will) have to be produced during discovery. Additionally, a well-written narrative helps the client attorney in preparing and executing the case at trial.

According to our most experienced members, perhaps the thorniest challenge for CFEs, once they’re engaged to work on a case, is setting a value on the specific business losses due to a fraud. Depending on the facts, there may be several methods for evaluating net worth/net loss, each rendering a different number at the end. And regardless of the numbers, there’s always the human element. Calculating business loss is a challenging task in a complex case because the examiner has to consider the amount of business being done, try to reconstruct the market conditions, think about competitors, and then calculate the amount of direct personal benefit; all of these factors being intertwined. In such cases, the examiner must consider a variety of points, prepare an estimate of loss, and then, most often, try to work out a compromise.

Article V. of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners Code of Professional Ethics states:

A fraud examiner, in conducting examinations, will obtain evidence or other documentation to establish a reasonable basis for any opinion rendered. No opinion shall be expressed regarding the guilt or innocence of any person or party.

The rule that prohibits opinions regarding the guilt or innocence of any person or party is a rule of prudence. Clearly, it’s prudent for a Certified Fraud Examiner to refrain from usurping the role of jury. In a courtroom, no good attorney would ask a CFE for such a conclusion, and no alert judge would allow such testimony.  The fraud examiner’s job is to present the evidence in his or her report. Such evidence might constitute a convincing case pointing to the guilt or innocence of a person. But a clear line should be drawn between a report that essentially says, “Here is the evidence” and one that steps over the line and says “S/he is the guilty (innocent) person.” Nevertheless, there is a fine line between recommending action, forwarding the evidence to a law enforcement agency or filing a complaint or lawsuit, and giving an opinion on guilt or innocence. CFEs may make such recommendations because they think the evidence is strong enough to support a case. They might even have a conclusion about whether the suspect committed a crime. The rule does not prohibit the CFE, under the proper circumstances, from accusing the person under investigation. However, the ultimate decision of whether a person is “guilty” or “innocent” is for a jury to determine. The CFE is free to report the facts and the conclusions that can be drawn from those facts, but the decision as to whether a person is guilty of a crime is a decision for the judge or jury.

Caution is the by-word for every expert witnesses at every step of the legal process. According to discovery rules governing expert testimony, everything the expert says or writes about the case after being hired is subject to discovery by opposing counsel. That means everything: narrative versions of the case, comments to the press or law enforcement, hypothetical reconstructions, even notes can be demanded and used by the opposing party. A shrewd attorney can use an expert’s preliminary notes containing drafts of an opinion and other purely deliberative information to call the witness’s testimony into question. The only exception is when the expert is hired by the attorney purely on a consulting basis. An expert witness has no privilege. The principle of privilege exists to protect certain core societal relationships (attorney-client, husband-wife), but the expert witness’s relationship with clients is not among those protected. If the expert’s opinions will be presented in court, everything related to the expert’s opinion is discoverable by the defense.

There is an exception. The CFE expert may consult on the client attorney’s work product, i.e., materials the attorney prepares as background for a case. While performing background work, the expert is said to be working as an associate of the attorney, so the exchange is protected; they are two professionals conferring. However, once the expert is hired as a witness, and begins entering opinions as part of the attorney’s case, there is no privilege for any contribution the expert makes. The distinction is something like this: when acting as “witnesses,” experts are bringing official information to the court, and so must disclose any contact with the case; when experts act as “consultants” or “associates” for attorneys or law enforcement, they are only assisting the attorney, and do not have to disclose their involvement in the case. However, if a testifying expert reviews the work of the consultant expert, then the work of the consultant expert will be discoverable. Remember this; if a CFE is hired to testify at trial, anything he or s/he used to form his or her opinion will be subject to review by the opposing party. This includes notes from other experts, documents received from the plaintiff or defendant, and any documents or notes from the attorney. CFEs should be sure to consult with the client attorney before reviewing anything. If the attorney has not given the document to you, then ask before you read. Otherwise, you may inadvertently destroy the confidentiality or privilege of the material.

In summary, the best way to protect the confidentiality of information is to keep good files. Any materials which serve as the basis for an expert’s opinion must be in the file. Notes, documents, or tests that serve as background, or that represent unfruitful lines of investigation, don’t have to be included, and probably shouldn’t be. The attorney trying the case doesn’t want an expert having to answer about investigative dead ends or exploratory side lines; a shrewd cross-examiner can turn a hastily scribbled hypothetical into reasonable doubt, just enough to avert a conviction. So, in the best-case scenario, an expert presents to the court an opinion and its basis, nothing more nothing less.

People, People & People

Our Chapter’s Vice-President Rumbi Petrolozzi’s comment in her last blog post to the effect that one of the most challenging tasks for the forensic accountant or auditor working proactively is defining the most effective and efficient scope of work for a risk-based assurance project. Because resources are always scarce, assurance professionals need to make sure they can meet both quality and scheduling requirements whilst staying within our fixed resource and cost constraints.

An essential step in defining the scope of a project is identifying the critical risks to review and the controls required to manage those risks. An efficient scope focuses on the subset of controls (i.e., the key controls) necessary to provide assurance. Performing tests of controls that are not critical is not efficient. Similarly, failing to test controls that could be the source of major fraud vulnerabilities leads to an ineffective audit.  As Rumbi points out, and too often overlooked, the root cause of most risk and control failures is people. After all, outstanding people are required to make an organization successful, and failing to hire, retain, and train a competent team of employees inevitably leads to business failure.

In an interview, a few decades ago, one of America’s most famous business leaders was asked what his greatest challenges were in turning one of his new companies around from failure to success. He is said to have responded that his three greatest challenges were “people, people, and people.” Certainly, when assurance professionals or management analyze the reasons for data breaches and control failures, people are generally found to be the root cause. For example, weaknesses may include (echoing Rumbi):

Insufficiently trained personnel to perform the work. A common material weakness in compliance with internal control over financial reporting requirements is a lack of experienced financial reporting personnel within a company. In more traditional anti-fraud process reviews, examiners often find that control weaknesses arise because individuals don’t understand the tasks they have to perform.

Insufficient numbers to perform the work. When CPAs find that important reconciliations are not performed timely, inventories are not counted, a backlog in transaction processing exists, or agreed-upon corrective actions to address prior audit findings aren’t completed, managers frequently offer the excuse that their area is understaffed.

Poor management and leadership. Fraud examiners find again and again, that micromanagers and dictators can destroy a solid finance function. At the other end of the spectrum, the absence of leadership, motivation, and communication can cause whole teams to flounder. Both situations generally lead to a failure to perform key controls consistently. For example, poor managers have difficulty retaining experienced professionals to perform account reconciliations on time and with acceptable levels of quality leading directly to an enhanced level of vulnerability to numerous fraud scenarios.

Ineffective human resource practices. In some cases, management may choose to accept a certain level of inefficiency and retain individuals who are not performing up to par. For instance, in an example cited by one of our ACFE training event speakers last year, the financial analysis group of a U.S. manufacturing company was failing to provide management with timely business information. Although the department was sufficiently staffed, the team members were ineffective. Still, management did not have the resolve to terminate poor performers, for fear it would not be possible to hire quality analysts to replace the people who were terminated.

In such examples, people-related weaknesses result in business process key control failures often leading to the facilitation of subsequent frauds. The key control failure was the symptom, and the people-related weakness was the root cause. As a result, the achievement of the business objective of fraud prevention is rendered at risk.

Consider a fraud examiner’s proactive assessment of an organization’s procurement function. If the examiner finds that all key controls are designed adequately and operating effectively, in compliance with company policy, and targeted cost savings are being generated, should s/he conclude the controls are adequate? What if that department has a staff attrition rate of 25 percent and morale is low? Does that change the fraud vulnerability assessment? Clearly, even if the standard set of controls were in place, the function would not be performing at optimal levels.  Just as people problems can lead to risk and control failures, exceptional people can help a company achieve success. In fact, an effective system of internal control considers the adequacy of controls not only to address the risks related to poor people-related management but also to recognize reduction in fraud vulnerability due to excellence in people-related management.

The people issue should be addressed in at least two phases of the assurance professional’s review process: planning and issue analysis (i.e., understanding weaknesses, their root cause, and the appropriate corrective actions).  In the planning phase, the examiner should consider how people-related anti-fraud controls might impact the review and which controls should be included in the scope. The following questions might be considered in relation to anti-fraud controls over staffing, organization, training, management and leadership, performance appraisals, and employee development:

–How significant would a failure of people-related controls be to the achievement of objectives and the management of business risk covered by the examination?
–How critical is excellence in people management to the achievement of operational excellence related to the objectives of the review?

Issue analysis requires a different approach. Reviewers may have to ask the question “why” three or more times before they get to the root cause of a problem. Consider the following little post-fraud dialogue (we’ve all heard variations) …

CFE: “Why weren’t the reconciliations completed on time?”
MANAGER. “Because we were busy closing the books and one staff member was on vacation.”
CFE: “You are still expected to complete the reconciliations, which are critical to closing the books. Even with one person on vacation, why were you too busy?”
MANAGER: “We just don’t have enough people to get everything done, even when we work through weekends and until late at night.”
CFE: “Why don’t you have enough people?”
MANAGER: “Management won’t let me hire anybody else because of cost constraints.”
CFE: “Why won’t management let you hire anybody? Don’t they realize the issue?”
MANAGER: “Well, I think they do, but I have been so busy that I may not have done an effective job of explaining the situation. Now that you are going to write this up as a control weakness, maybe they will.”

The root cause of the problem in this scenario is that the manager responsible for reconciliations failed to provide effective leadership. She did not communicate the problem and ensure she had sufficient resources to perform the work assigned. The root cause is a people problem, and the reviewer should address that directly in his or her final report. If the CFE only reports that the reconciliations weren’t completed on time, senior management might only press the manager to perform better without understanding the post-fraud need for both performance improvement and additional staff.

In many organizations, it’s difficult for a reviewer to discuss people issues with management, even when these issues can be seen to directly and clearly contribute to fraud vulnerably. Assurance professionals may find it tricky, for political reasons to recommend the hiring of additional staff or to explain that the existing staff members do not have the experience or training necessary to perform their assigned tasks. Additionally, we are likely to run into political resistance when reporting management and leadership failure. But, that’s the job assurance professionals are expected to perform; to provide an honest, objective assessment of the condition of critical anti-fraud controls including those related to people.  If the scope of our work does not consider people risks, or if reviewers are unable to report people-related weaknesses, we are not adding the value we should. We’re also failing to report on matters critical to the maintenance and extension of the client’s anti-fraud program.

A Ship of Fools

Our Chapter’s January-February 2018 lecture for CPE credit is concerned with the broader ethical implications of the types of fraud, many interlocking and coordinated, that made up the 2007-2008 Great Recession.  At the center of the scandal were ethically challenged actions by bank managements and their boards, but also by the investment companies and ratings agencies, who not only initiated much of the fraud and deception but, in many cases, actively expanded and perpetuated it.

Little more than a glance at the historical record confirms that deception by bank executives of regulators and of their own investors about illegal activity or about the institution’s true financial condition to conceal poor performance, poor management, or questionable transactions is not new to the world of U.S. finance. In fact, it was a key practice during the meltdown of the financial markets in 2007. In addition, the period saw heated debate about alleged deception by the rating agencies, Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch, of major institutional investors, who depended on the agencies’ valuations of subprime-backed securities in the making of investment decisions. Thus, not only deceptive borrowers and unscrupulous mortgage brokers and appraisers contributed to the meltdown. The maelstrom of lies and deception that drove the entire U.S. financial system in mid to late 2005 accelerated to the point of no return, and the crisis that ensued proved unavoidable.

There were ample instances of bank deception in the years leading up to the Great Depression of the 1930’s. The facts came out with considerable drama and fanfare through the work of the era’s Pecora Commission. However, the breadth and scope of executive deception that came under the legal and regulatory microscope following the financial market collapse of 2007 to 2009 represent some of history’s most brazen cases of concealment of irresponsible lending practices, fraudulent underwriting, shady financial transactions, and intentionally false statements to investors, federal regulators, and investigators.

According to the ACFE and other analysts, the lion’s share of direct blame for the meltdown lies with top executives of the major banks, investment firms, and rating agencies. They charge the commercial bank bosses with perpetuating a boom in reckless mortgage lending and the investment bankers with essentially tricking institutional investors into buying the exotic derivative securities backed by the millions and millions of toxic mortgages sold off by the mortgage lenders. The commercial bank bosses and investment bankers were, according to these observers, aided and abetted by the rating agencies, which lowered their rating standards on high-risk mortgage-backed securities that should never have received investment-grade ratings but did so because the rating agencies were paid by the very investment banks which issued the bonds. The agencies reportedly feared losing business if they gave poor ratings to the securities.

As many CFEs know, fraud is always the principal credit risk of any nonprime mortgage lending operation. It’s impossible in practice to detect fraud without reviewing a sample of the loan files. Paper loan files are bulky, so they are photographed, and the images are stored on computer tapes. Unfortunately, most investors (the large commercial and investment banks that purchased non-prime loans and pooled them to create financial derivatives) didn’t review the loan files before purchasing them and did not even require the original lenders to provide them with the loan tapes requisite for subsequent review and audit.

The rating agencies also never reviewed samples of loan files before giving AAA ratings to nonprime mortgage financial derivatives. The “AAA’ rating is supposed to indicate that there is virtually no credit risk, the risk being thought equivalent to U.S. government bonds, which the finance industry refers to as “risk-free.”  The rating agencies attained their lucrative profits because they gave AAA ratings to nonprime financial derivatives exposed to staggering default risk. A graph of their profits in this era rises like a stairway to the stars. Turning a blind eye to the mortgage fraud epidemic was the only way the rating agencies could hope to attain, and sustain, those profit levels. If they had engaged forensic accountants to review even small samples of nonprime loans, they would have been confronted with only two real choices: (1) rating them as toxic waste, which would have made it impossible to sell the associated nonprime financial derivatives or (2) documenting that they themselves were committing, aiding and abetting, a blatant accounting fraud.

A statement made during the 2008 House of Representatives hearings on the topic of the rating agencies’ role in the crisis represents an apt summary of how the financial and government communities viewed the actions and attitudes of the three rating agencies in the years leading up to the subprime crisis. An S&P employee, testified that “the rating agencies continue to create an even bigger monster, the CDO [collateralized debt obligation] market. Let’s hope we all are wealthy and retired by the time this house of cards falters.”

With respect to bank executives, the examples of proved and alleged deception during the period are so numerous as to almost defy belief. Among the most noteworthy are:

–The SEC investigated Citigroup as to whether it misled investors by failing to disclose critical details about the troubled mortgage assets it was holding as the financial markets began to collapse in 2007. The investigation came only after some of the mortgage-related securities being held by Citigroup were downgraded by an independent rating agency. Shortly thereafter, Citigroup announced quarterly losses of around $10 billion on its subprime-mortgage holdings, an astounding amount that directly contributed to the resignation of then CEO, Charles Prince;

–The SEC conducted similar investigations into Bank of America, now-defunct Lehman Brothers, and Merrill Lynch (now a part of Bank of America);

–The SEC filed civil fraud charges against Angelo Mozilo, cofounder and former CEO of Countrywide Financial Corp. In the highest-profile government legal action against a chief executive related to the financial crisis, the SEC charged Mozilo with insider trading and alleged failure to disclose material information to shareholders, according to people familiar with the matter. Mozilo sold $130 million of Countrywide stock in the first half of 2007 under an executive sales plan, according to government filings.

As the ACFE points out, every financial services company has its own unique internal structure and management policies. Some are more effective than others in reducing the risk of management-level fraud. The best anti-fraud controls are those designed to reduce the risk of a specific type of fraud threatening the organization.  Designing effective anti-fraud controls depends directly on accurate assessment of those risks. How, after all, can management or the board be expected to design and implement effective controls if it is unclear about which frauds are most threatening? That’s why a fraud risk assessment (FRA) is essential to any anti-fraud Program; an essential exercise designed to determine the specific types of fraud to which your client organization is most vulnerable within the context of its existing anti-fraud controls. This enables management to design, customize, and implement the best controls to minimize fraud risk throughout the organization.  Again, according to the ACFE (joined by the Institute of Internal Auditors, and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants), an organization’s contracted CFEs backed by its own internal audit team can play a direct role in this all-important effort.

Your client’s internal auditors should consider the organization’s assessment of fraud risk when developing their annual audit plan and review management’s fraud management capabilities periodically. They should interview and communicate regularly with those conducting the organization’s risk assessments, as well as with others in key positions throughout the organization, to help them ensure that all fraud risks have been considered appropriately. When performing proactive fraud risk assessment engagements, CFEs should direct adequate time and attention to evaluating the design and operation of internal controls specifically related to fraud risk management. We should exercise professional skepticism when reviewing activities and be on guard for the tell-tale signs of fraud. Suspected frauds uncovered during an engagement should be treated in accordance with a well-designed response plan consistent with professional and legal standards.

As this month’s lecture recommends, CFEs and forensic accountants can also contribute value by proactively taking a proactive role in support of the organization’s underlying ethical culture.

First Steps to Prosecution

A recent study sponsored by the financial trade press indicated some haziness among assurance professionals generally about the precise mechanism(s) underlying the process by which the authorities make the initial decision to prosecute or not to prosecute alleged financial statement fraud.

In the U.S. federal system, a criminal investigation of fraudulent financial reporting can originate in all sorts of ways. An investigation may be initiated because of a whistleblower, an anonymous tip, information supplied by a conscientious or guilt-ridden employee, or facts discovered during a routine annual audit of the company’s financial statements. In addition, the company’s public disclosure of financial misstatements may itself lead to the commencement of a criminal investigation. However initially initiated, the decision to start a criminal investigation is entirely within the discretion of the United States Attorney in each federal district.

For the prosecutor, the decision whether to open an investigation can be difficult. The main reason is the need for the prosecutor to establish criminal intent, that is, that the perpetrator not only got the accounting wrong but did so willfully. Often, bad accounting will be the result of judgment calls, which can be defended as exactly that, executive determinations or judgement calls that, while easy to second guess with the benefit of hindsight, were made in good faith at the time. Thus, a prosecutor evaluating the viability of a criminal prosecution will be looking for evidence of conduct so egregious that the perpetrator must have known it was wrong. This is not to suggest that evidence of a wrongful intent is the only consideration. A prosecutor’s exercise of his or her prosecutorial discretion may consider all kinds of factors in deciding whether criminal inquiry is warranted. Those factors may include the magnitude and nature of the accounting misstatements, whether individuals personally benefited from the misstatements or acted pursuant to the directive of a superior, whether documents were fabricated or destroyed, the probable deterrent or rehabilitative effect of prosecution, and the likelihood of success at trial. The availability of governmental resources may also be a factor.

Where the putative defendant is a corporation, partnership, or other business organization, a more settled set of factors come into play:

–The nature and seriousness of the offense, including the risk of harm to the public, and applicable policies and priorities, if any, governing the prosecution of corporations for certain categories of crime;
–The pervasiveness of wrongdoing within the corporation, including the complicity in, or the condoning of, the wrongdoing by corporate management;
–The corporation’s history of similar misconduct, including prior criminal, civil, and regulatory enforcement actions against it;
–The corporation’s timely and voluntary disclosure of wrong-doing and its willingness to cooperate in the investigation of its agents;
–The existence and effectiveness of the corporation’s preexisting compliance program;
–The corporation’s remedial actions, including any efforts to implement an effective corporate compliance program or to improve an existing one, to replace responsible management, to discipline or terminate wrongdoers, to pay restitution, and to cooperate with the relevant government agencies;
–Collateral consequences, including whether there is disproportionate harm to shareholders, pension holders, employees, and others not proven personally culpable, as well as the impact on the public arising from the prosecution;
–The adequacy of the prosecution of individuals responsible for the corporation’s malfeasance;
–The adequacy of remedies such as civil or regulatory enforcement actions.

However, a prosecutor gets there, once s/he determines to commence a criminal investigation, there is no doubt that those who are its targets will quickly come to view it as a priority over everything else. The government’s powers to investigate are broad, and, once a determination to go forward is made, the full resources of the government, including the FBI, can be brought to bear. The criminal sentences resulting from a successful prosecution can be severe if not excessive, particularly considering the enhanced criminal sentences put in place by Sarbanes-Oxley.  The ACFE reports that one midlevel executive at a company who elected to proceed to trial was convicted and received a prison sentence of 24 years. The fact that the sentence was subsequently set aside on appeal does little to mitigate the concern that such a sentence could be imposed upon a first-time, nonviolent offender whose transgression was a failure to apply generally accepted accounting principles.

Typically, a company learns that it is involved in a criminal investigation when it receives a grand jury subpoena, in most instances a subpoena duces tecum, compelling the company or its employees to furnish documents to the grand jury. In an investigation of fraudulent financial reporting, such a subpoena for documents may encompass all the files underlying the company’s publicly disseminated financial information, including the records underlying the transactions at issue and related emails.

For a CFE’s client company counsel and for the company’s executives generally, the need to respond to the subpoena presents both an opportunity and a dilemma. The opportunity stems from the company’s ability, in responding to the subpoena, to learn about the investigation, an education process that will be critical to a successful criminal defense. The dilemma stems from the need to assess the extent to which active and complete cooperation should be pledged to the prosecutor at the outset. The formulation of a response to a criminal subpoena, therefore, constitutes a critical point in the investigatory process. Those involved are thereby placed in the position of needing to make important decisions at an early stage that can have lasting and significant effects.  The CFE can support them in getting through this process.

Once an initial review of the subpoena and its underlying substance is complete, one of the first steps in formulating a response is often for company counsel to make a phone call to the prosecutor to make appropriate introductions and, to the extent possible, to seek background information regarding the investigation. In this initial contact, the prosecutor will be understandably guarded. Nonetheless, some useful information will frequently be shared. A general impression may be gained about the scope and focus of the investigation and the timing of additional subpoenas and testimony. Thereafter, it is not unusual for an initial meeting to be arranged to discuss in greater detail the company’s response. One benefit of such a meeting is that some level of additional information may be forthcoming.

From the outset, company counsel will be undertaking a process that will be ongoing throughout the criminal proceedings: learning as much as possible about the prosecutor’s case. The reason is that, unlike a civil case, in which broad principles of discovery enable the defendants to learn the details of the adversary’s evidence, the procedural rules of a criminal investigation result in much greater secrecy. Less formal methods of learning the details of the prosecutor’s case, therefore, are critical. In these initial contacts, the establishment of a sound foundation for the company’s dealings with the prosecutor is an important aspect of the investigation. To state it simply, CFE’s should always support that those dealings be premised on a foundation of candor.

Although it may be appropriate at various stages to decline to discuss sensitive matters, counsel should avoid making a factual statement on any subject about which it may be incompletely or inaccurately informed. This admonition applies to subjects such as the existence and location of files, the burden of producing documents, and the availability of witnesses. It also applies to more substantive matters bearing on the guilt or innocence of parties. CFE’s should, again, counsel their clients that a relationship with the prosecutor based on trust and confidence is key.

The judgment regarding the extent of cooperation with the prosecutor can be a tough one. Unlike in a civil proceeding, where cooperation with regulatory authorities (such as the SEC) is generally the preferred approach, the decision to cooperate with the government in a criminal investigation may be much more difficult, insofar as a subsequent effort to oppose the government (should such a change of approach be necessary) would be impeded by the loss of a significant tactical advantage, the loss of surprise. In criminal cases, the government is not afforded the same broad rights of discovery available in civil proceedings. It is entirely possible for a prosecutor to have no significant knowledge of the defense position until after the start of a trial. On the other hand, the privileges available to a corporation are limited. There is, most importantly, no Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination for companies.  Furthermore, almost any kind of evidence, even evidence that would be inadmissible at trial, except for illegal wiretaps or privileged material, can be considered by a grand jury. Therefore, the company’s ability to oppose a grand jury investigation is limited, and the prosecutor may even consider a company’s extensive zeal in opposition to constitute obstruction of justice. Moreover, the prosecutor’s ultimate decision about indictment of the company may be affected by the extent of the company’s cooperation. And corporate management may wish to demonstrate cooperation as a matter of policy or public relations.

One issue with which a company will need to wrestle is whether it is appropriate for a public company or its executives to do anything other than cooperate with the government. On this issue, it is useful for executives to appreciate that the U.S. system of justice affords those being investigated certain fundamental rights, and it is not unpatriotic to take advantage of them. As to individuals, one of the most basic of these rights is the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Insofar as, in fraud cases, guilt can be established through circumstantial evidence, executives need to keep in mind that it demonstrates no lack of civic virtue to take full advantage of constitutional protections designed to protect the innocent.

A challenge is that many of these judgments regarding cooperation must be made at the outset when the company’s information is limited. Often the best approach, at least as a threshold matter, will be one of courteous professionalism, meaning respect for one’s adversary and reasonable accommodation pending more informed judgments down the road. Premature expressions of complete cooperation are best avoided as a subsequent change in approach can give rise to governmental frustration and anger.

Following the initial steps of the grand jury subpoena and the preliminary contact with the prosecutor, CFE’s are uniquely positioned to assist corporate counsel and management in the remaining stages of the criminal investigation of a financial crime:

–Production of documents;
–Grand jury testimony;
–Plea negotiations (if necessary);
–Trial (if necessary).

From Inside the Building

By Rumbi Petrozzello, CFE, CPA/CFF
2017 Vice-President – Central Virginia Chapter ACFE

Several months ago, I attended an ACFE session where one of the speakers had worked on the investigation of Edward Snowden. He shared that one of the ways Snowden had gained access to some of the National Security Agency (NSA) data that he downloaded was through the inadvertent assistance of his supervisor. According to this investigator, Snowden’s supervisor shared his password with Snowden, giving Snowden access to information that was beyond his subordinate’s level of authorization. In addition to this, when those security personnel reviewing downloads made by employees noticed that Snowden was downloading copious amounts of data, they approached Snowden’s supervisor to question why this might be the case. The supervisor, while acknowledging this to be true, stated that Snowden wasn’t really doing anything untoward.

At another ACFE session, a speaker shared information with us about how Chelsea Manning was able to download and remove data from a secure government facility. Manning would come to work, wearing headphones, listening to music on a Discman. Security would hear the music blasting and scan the CDs. Day after day, it was the same scenario. Manning showed up to work, music blaring.  Security staff grew so accustomed to Manning, the Discman and her CDs that when she came to work though security with a blank CD boldly labelled “LADY GAGA”, security didn’t blink. They should have because it was that CD and ones like it that she later carried home from work that contained the data she eventually shared with WikiLeaks.

Both these high-profile disasters are notable examples of the bad outcome arising from a realized internal threat. Both Snowden and Manning worked for organizations that had, and have, more rigorous security procedures and policies in place than most entities. Yet, both Snowden and Manning did not need to perform any magic tricks to sneak data out of the secure sites where the target data was held; it seems that it all it took was audacity on the one side and trust and complacency on the other.

When organizations deal with outside parties, such as vendors and customers, they tend to spend a lot of time setting up the structures and systems that will guide how the organization will interact with those vendors and customers. Generally, companies will take these systems of control seriously, if only because of the problems they will have to deal with during annual external audits if they don’t. The typical new employee will spend a lot of time learning what the steps are from the point when a customer places an order through to the point the customer’s payment is received. There will be countless training manuals to which to refer and many a reminder from co-workers who may be negatively impacted if the rooky screws up.

However, this scenario tends not to hold up when it comes to how employees typically share information and interact with each other. This is true despite the elevated risk that a rogue insider represents. Often, when we think about an insider causing harm to a company through fraudulent acts, we tend to imagine a villain, someone we could identify easily because s/he is obviously a terrible person. After all, only a terrible person could defraud their employer. In fact, as the ACFE tells us, the most successful fraudsters are the ones who gain our trust and who, therefore, don’t really have to do too much for us to hand over the keys to the kingdom. As CFEs and Forensic Accountants, we need to help those we work with understand the risks that an insider threat can represent and how to mitigate that risk. It’s important, in advising our clients, to guide them toward the creation of preventative systems of policy and procedure that they sometimes tend to view as too onerous for their employees. Excuses I often hear run along the lines of:

• “Our employees are like family here, we don’t need to have all these rules and regulations”

• “I keep a close eye on things, so I don’t have to worry about all that”

• “My staff knows what they are supposed to do; don’t worry about it.”

Now, if people can easily walk sensitive information out of locations that have documented systems and are known to be high security operations, can you imagine what they can do at your client organizations? Especially if the employer is assuming that their employees magically know what they are supposed to do? This is the point that we should be driving home with our clients. We should look to address the fact that both trust and complacency in organizations can be problems as well as assets. It’s great to be able to trust employees, but we should also talk to our clients about the fraud triangle and how one aspect of it, pressure, can happen to any staff member, even the most trusted. With that in mind, it’s important to institute controls so that, should pressure arise with an employee, there will be little opportunity open to that employee to act. Both Manning and Snowden have publicly spoken about the pressures they felt that led them to act in the way they did. The reason we even know about them today is that they had the opportunity to act on those pressures. I’ve spent time consulting with large organizations, often for months at a time. During those times, I got to chat with many members of staff, including security. On a couple of occasions, I forgot and left my building pass at home. Even though I was on a first name basis with the security staff and had spent time chatting with them about our personal lives, they still asked me for identification and looked me up in the system. I’m sure they thought I was a nice and trustworthy enough person, but they knew to follow procedures and always checked on whether I was still authorized to access the building. The important point is that they, despite knowing me, knew to check and followed through.

Examples of controls employees should be reminded to follow are:

• Don’t share your password with a fellow employee. If that employee cannot access certain information with their own password, either they are not authorized to access that information or they should speak with an administrator to gain the desired access. Sharing a password seems like a quick and easy solution when under time pressures at work, but remind employees that when they share their login information, anything that goes awry will be attributed to them.

• Always follow procedures. Someone looking for an opportunity only needs one.

• When something looks amiss, thoroughly investigate it. Even if someone tells you that all is well, verify that this is indeed the case.

• Explain to staff and management why a specific control is in place and why it’s important. If they understand why they are doing something, they are more likely to see the control as useful and to apply it.

• Schedule training on a regular basis to remind staff of the controls in place and the systems they are to follow. You may believe that staff knows what they are supposed to do, but reminding them reduces the risk of them relying on hearsay and secondhand information. Management is often surprised by what they think staff knows and what they find out the staff really knows.

It should be clear to your clients that they have control over who has access to sensitive information and when and how it leaves their control. It doesn’t take much for an insider to gain access to this information. A face you see smiling at you daily is the face of a person you can grow comfortable with and with whom you can drop your guard. However, if you already have an adequate system and effective controls in place, you take the personal out of the equation and everyone understands that we are all just doing our job.