Bob the Builder

bobthebuilder

by Rumbi Petrozzello
2016 Vice President – Central Virginia ACFE Chapter

The soundtrack of my summer was a cacophony of drills, sanders and related discordant noises, all guaranteed to drive me to near insanity. Since the bulk of this seemed to be happening right outside my window, the result was a shrinking view of the sky, more views into the homes of my neighbors than I ever wanted and a near-constant film of dust on everything in our home, despite all our best efforts. I thought that construction was looming large only in my life but, coming off a trip to Nashville, Tennessee, I see that I’m far from alone. I took a tour bus around the city and, it almost seemed the city skyline was made up of little else than the silhouettes of massive construction cranes. There’s a lot going on in an industry that, at least in New York City, has a history of control by organized crime.

It’s hardly surprising – construction projects span long periods of time and require many moving parts. There can be several contractors responsible for different parts of a construction project, and each of those contractors hires subcontractors. Because projects range from moderate to long term, contractors and subcontractors will bill periodically for work in progress and, there is a lot of leeway for estimating just how much of the project has been completed. Depending on the contract, there may be head room to get paid for cost overruns and, if there’s room for that, you can be sure that someone is going to try to take advantage. There is no shortage of ways in which fraud or error can occur when it comes to construction. Controlling various aspects of the construction industry was lucrative business for organized crime for many years. Nowadays, the regular fraudster on the street has also found his way into profiting from construction related fraud – if the opportunity is there, the ethically challenged always seem to find ways to exploit it.

As forensic accountants and fraud examiners, we may find ourselves being called upon to investigate such frauds. Sometimes companies decide to be proactive and bring us in to assess, suggest and institute practices that will help prevent, detect and deter fraudulent activities. In either case, there is much that we can do. An important aspect of this type of effort is our emphasizing to the client and the wider business community the importance of well-kept and comprehensive business records. As tedious as some of this may feel to those maintaining the records, such records can prove invaluable when things go wrong. Contractors and their subcontractors should both maintain up-to-date ledgers. The ledger information should be corroborated by supporting information. Examples of critical documentation are:

  • Payroll records – this includes matching the ledger information to time cards, information from payroll processing companies and filings with city, state and federal authorities.
  • Bank statements – bank statements should be reconciled to the general ledger and there should be searches for possible bank accounts that are not reported on the ledger. Is the contractor transferring funds to accounts for related companies? What information is on the credit card statements and how does it relate to the contractors’ ledgers? Does information on brokerage accounts match information in the general ledger?
  • Invoices – do the vendors declarations of what’s going on make sense? Do their submitted expenses make sense? Can you immediately understand their expenses or is the information vague and lacking enough detail to determine what the vendor is being paid for? Have costs been misclassified? Follow the money … we should always stop and take the time to look and see where the money is going and why it’s going there.

Many construction projects employ union workers. Because unions tend to be organizations with lots of bureaucracy, it follows that they tend also to be organizations with lots of records. If a union tells you that it does not have many records, that fact alone should raise a red flag. When seeking to verify information from such organizations, there are various standard records we can request:

  • Shop steward report – This is a report that will show the names of the employees working, the times they reported for work and left and out and the number of hours worked. This information can be very useful in testing if the hours claimed are reasonable.
  • Job descriptions – Do the job descriptions make sense and do they match the employees that are claiming to be doing the work? In one case in New York City, a legally blind man was listed on the books as a heavy machinery operator. Subsequent investigation revealed that he was indeed blind; and he never went anywhere near heavy machinery.
  • Member profiles – Review benefits and see to whom the union pays those benefits. Review the records and see if anything jumps out at you as being unusual, requiring further information and perhaps investigation. Do you have a member (or members) listed who’s well-paid for not doing much?
  • Look at the records the general contractor keeps and see if they match the records kept by the union.

If you’ve been brought in to perform proactive fraud prevention and detection work, encourage and suggest that, if one does not already exist, the company set up an effective and comprehensive whistleblower program. Confidential sources are often the most important element of an investigation. These sources can also be very helpful in making sure that you ask for all the documents needed for your specific investigation and they can also make valuable suggestions precisely where else you can look for vital case information.

If my city is anything like yours, there are a lot of construction projects being planned and in the works. You don’t have to look hard at all to find media reporting on cost overruns and fraud in the construction industry. From The Big Dig in Boston to personal tales told to you by friends, there are many ways in which the moving parts of any construction project can be exploited by fraudsters. There are also many ways in which we can be of service as forensic accountants and fraud examiners to deter, detect and investigate every aspect of this exploitation.

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