The Expert & the Internet

expert-witnessesPart of the wrap up process our Chapter performs following each of our two day seminars is a review of attendee question topics.  As nearly all of them do, our recent ‘Investigating on the Internet: Research Tools for Fraud Examiners’ seminar elicited a number of thoughtful questions, several from attendees whose practices include testimony as an expert witness and employment as legal consultants.   From the tenor and content of the questions it appears that these CFEs were acting as experts and consultants in the legal process by assisting attorneys with the financial details of a suit, and testifying about these practices at trial. In such cases CFE’s analyze documents and transactions, both internet based and hard copy, showing how the fraud was accomplished and, when possible, who the most likely perpetrators were. The CFE acts as a guide and adviser for the attorney in assembling the case, and, sometimes, as a major participant as an expert witness in explaining the ways of fraud to a judge and jury.

Experts, in general, are brought in when required by law, as in malpractice suits where a member of a profession, say a physician, has to explain the infraction against professional by-laws or principles; where key points are deemed sufficiently technical or complex, like “cooking-the-books” schemes involving intricate accounting manipulations; or for assisting (some would say, for swaying) the jury in making its final decision.  Federal Rule of Evidence 702 tells us 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 value to the trial process in a myriad of ways. They provide background information to guide and frame a case; during discovery 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 actually make it to a courtroom.

Once they accept a case, many experts immediately begin utilizing on and off-line tools to start the process of 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. It’s important that the narrative text be written with care and professionalism. 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.  As our speaker, Liseli Pennings, pointed out, perhaps the thorniest challenge for CFEs, once they’re engaged to work on a case, is setting a value on business losses due to fraud. Even though financially related information available on the internet and elsewhere can be of great value in estimating the loss, there may be several methods appropriate for evaluating net worth/net loss appropriate to a given case, each rendering a different number at the end. And regardless of the numbers, there’s always the human element.

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 the jury. In a courtroom, no good attorney would ask a Certified Fraud Examiner for such a conclusion, and no alert judge would allow such testimony. The fraud examiner’s job is to present the evidence in his 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 “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. Certified Fraud Examiners 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 Certified Fraud Examiner, 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 or not a person is guilty of a crime is a decision for the judge or jury.

As Liseli pointed out caution as to information reliability is the by-word for every use of internet based information in general and use by expert witnesses is no exception. 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: internet downloads, 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.  However, CFE’s acting as expert witnesses need to be aware of the consulting expert exception.

Experts may consult on the 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.

There is one trap for the unwary. The rule is that if an expert will testify at trial, everything s/he does regarding the case must be turned over to the other side. If an expert works only as a consultant to the attorney, then her work product is not discoverable. However, if a testifying expert reviews the work of the consultant expert, then the work of the consultant expert will be discoverable. Just remember this, if you are hired to testify at trial, anything you used to form your opinion will be subject to review by the opposing party. This includes information downloaded from the internet, notes from other experts, documents received from the plaintiff or defendant, and any documents or notes from the attorney. Be sure to consult with the attorney before you review 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.

The utilization of internet based information resources introduces yet another layer of complexity to the employment of CFE’s as expert witnesses and/or attorney consultants.  The information available is often vast, almost instantly available and constantly changing.  Practitioners and their client attorneys must decide on a case by case basis whether it’s best utilized in the role of a consultant or in that of an expert witness.

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