On Auditors, Lawyers & Data

corp-counselWhen it comes to gaining access to sensitive, internal digital data during a forensic examination, the corporate council can be the fraud examiner’s best ally.  It, therefore, behooves us to fully understand the unifying role the client counsel holds in overseeing the entire review process.  As our guest blogger, Michael Hart, and other experienced practitioners have pointed out, data analysis becomes most effective when it’s integrated into the wider forensic accounting project.  If the end results are to cohere with findings from other sources, forensic data analysis should not be performed as a separate investigation, walled off from the other review efforts undertaken to benefit the client. Today, it’s a truism that data analysis can serve many functions within a forensic accounting project. On some occasions, it’s rightfully the main engine of an engagement. When such is the case, data analysis is used for highlighting potentially unusual items and trends. More often, however, in actual practice, data analysis is a complementary part of a wider forensic accounting investigation, a piece of a puzzle (and never the be all and end all of the investigation), that involves several other parallel methods of information analysis or evidence gathering, including document review, physical inspection, and investigative interviews.

The timing of the data analysis work depends on the extent to which the forensic accounting team needs to work with the results as defined by counsel. Frequently, once the method of a fraud has been established, data analysis is conducted to estimate the amount of damage. If the team knows that several components of an organization were affected by a fraud scheme, that team may be able to compare these results with those derived from analyses of unaffected branches and, after adjusting for other relevant factors, provide management with a broad estimate of the total effect on the financial statements. When such an approach is used, the comparison should be performed after the investigation has determined the characteristics of the fraud scheme. However, in most cases, as the ACFE tells us, the purpose of data analysis in an investigation is to identify suspicious activity on which the forensic accounting team can act.

Suspicious transactions can be identified in several ways: comparing different sources of evidence, such as accounting records and bank statements, to find discrepancies between them; searching digital records for duplicate transactions; or identifying sudden changes in the size, volume, or nature of transactions, which need to be explained. While data analysis often is a fast and effective way of highlighting potential areas of fraud, it will never capture every detail that an experienced fraud examiner can glean from reviewing an original document. If data analysis is performed to identify suspicious activity, it typically is performed before any manual review is carried out. This helps ensure that investigative resources are targeting suspicious areas and are concentrating on confirming fraudulent activity rather than concentrating on a search for such activity within a sea of legitimate transactions.

The first person to be contacted when there is a suspected fraud is typically in-house counsel. Depending on the apparent severity of the matter and its apparent location in the company, other internal resources to be alerted at an early stage, in addition to the board (typically through its audit committee), may include corporate security, internal audit, risk management, the controller’s office, and the public relations and investor relations groups. Investigations usually begin with extensive conversation about who should be involved, and the responsible executives may naturally wish to involve some or all the functions just mentioned.  Depending on the circumstances, the group of internal auditors (if there is one) can in fact be a tremendous asset to an independent forensic investigative team. As participants in the larger team, internal auditors’ knowledge of the company may improve both the efficiency with which evidence is gathered and the forensic team’s effectiveness in lining up interviews and analyzing findings. The ACFE advices client executives and in-house counsel to engage an external team but to consider making available to that team the company’s internal auditors, selected information systems staff and other internal resources for any investigation of substantial size.

The key to the success of all this from the forensic accountant’s point of view, especially in gaining access to critical digital data, can be the corporate counsel.  On one hand, the forensic accounting investigator may find that the attorney gives the forensic accounting investigator free rein to devise and execute a strategic investigative plan, subject to the attorney’s approval. That scenario is particularly likely in cases of asset misappropriation. On the other hand, some attorneys insist on being involved in all phases of the investigation. It’s the attorney’s call. When engaged by counsel, forensic accounting investigators take direction from counsel. You should advise per your best judgment, but in the end, you work at counsel’s direction.

When working with attorneys on projects involving sensitive digital data, forensic accounting investigators should specifically understand:

  • Their expected role and responsibilities vis-à-vis other team members;
  • Critical managers and players within the information systems shop and their various roles;
  • What other professionals are involved (current or contemplated);
  • The extent and source of any external scrutiny (SEC, IRS, DOJ, etc.);
  • Any legal considerations (extent of privilege, expectation that the company intends to waive privilege, expectation of criminal charges, and so on);
  • Anticipated timing issues, if any;
  • Expected form, timing, and audience of interim or final deliverables;
  • Specifics of the matters under investigation, as currently understood by counsel;
  • Any limitations on departments or personnel that can be involved, interviewed, or utilized in the investigation process.

Independent counsel, with the help of forensic accounting investigators, often takes the lead in setting up, organizing, and managing the entire investigative team. This process may include the selection and retention of other parties who make up the team. Independent counsel’s responsibilities typically encompass the following:

  • Preparing, maintaining, and disseminating a working-group list (very helpful in sorting out which law firms or experts represent whom);
  • Establishing the timetable in conjunction with the board of directors or management, disseminating the timetable to the investigating team, and tracking progress against it;
  • Compiling, submitting, and tracking the various document and personnel access requests that the investigating team members will generate;
  • Organizing client or team meetings and agendas;
  • Preparing the final report with or for the board or its special committee, or doing so in conjunction with other teams from which reports are forthcoming;
  • Establishing and maintaining communication channels with the board of directors and other interested parties, generally including internal general counsel, company management, regulatory personnel, law enforcement or tax authority personnel, and various other attorneys involved.

As fraud examiners, we’re frequently conversant in areas related to financial accounting and reporting such as valuation, tax, and the financial aspects of human resource management but conversant doesn’t necessarily indicate a sufficient level of knowledge to fully guide a complex organizational investigation.  What we can do, however, is to work closely with the corporate counsel to assist him or her in the building of a team on the back of which even the most complex examination can be brought to a successful conclusion.

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