Tag Archives: Engagement Planning

Another Sold Out Event!

 

 

 

 

Our Chapter wants to extend its formal thanks to our partners, national ACFE and the Virginia State Police, but especially to our event attendees who made this year’s May training event a resounding, sold-out success! As the rave attendee evaluations revealed, How to Testify, was one of our best received sessions ever!

Our presenter, Hugo Holland, CFE, JDD, brought his vast courtroom experience as a prosecutor and nationally recognized litigator to bear in communicating every aspect of a complex practice area in a down-to-earth comprehensible manner with no sacrifice of vital detail.

As Hugo made clear, there are two basic kinds of testimony. The first is lay testimony (sometimes called factual testimony), where witnesses testify about what they have experienced firsthand and their factual observations. The second kind is expert testimony, where a person who, by reason of education, training, skill, or experience, is qualified to render an expert opinion regarding certain issues at hand. Typically, a fraud examiner who worked on a case will be capable of providing both lay, and potentially, expert testimony based on observations made during the investigation.

Certified Fraud Examiners (CFEs) and forensic accountants serve two primary roles as experts in forensic matters: expert consultants and expert witnesses. The fraud investigator must always be prepared to serve as an expert witness in court and learning how best to do so is critical for the training of the rounded professional. The expert consultant is an independent fraud examiner/accounting contractor who provides expert opinions in a wide array of cases, such as those relating to fraud investigations, divorces, mergers and acquisitions, employee-employer disputes, insurance disputes, and so on. In a fraud case, the CFE could identify and document all fraudulent transactions. This in turn could lead to reaching a plea bargain with a guilty employee. Therefore, the CFE helps solve a problem before any expert trial testimony is needed.

In addition, CFEs and forensic accountants are called upon to provide expert consultation services involving testimony in such areas as:

• Fraud investigations and management.
• Business valuation calculations.
• Economic damage calculations.
• Lost profits and wages.
• Disability income analysis.
• Economic analyses and valuations in matrimonial (prenuptial, postnuptial, and divorce) accounting.
• Adequacy of life insurance.
• Analysis of contract proposals.

Hugo emphasized that the most important considerations at trial for experts are credibility, demeanor, understandability, and accuracy. Credibility is not something that can be controlled in and of itself but is a result of the factors that are under the control of the expert witness. Hugo expounded in greater detail on these and other general guidelines:

• The answering of questions in plain language. Judges, juries, arbitrators, and others tend to believe expert testimony more when they truly understand what the expert says. It is best, therefore, to reduce complicated, technical arguments to plain language.

• The answering of only what is asked. Expert witnesses should not volunteer more than what is asked even when not volunteering more testimony could suggest that the expert’s testimony is giving the wrong impression. It is up to employing counsel to clear up any misimpressions through follow-up questions. That is, it is up to counsel to “rehabilitate” his or her expert witness who appears to have been impeached. That said, however, experienced expert witnesses sometimes volunteer information to protect their testimony from being twisted. Experience is needed to know when and how to do this and Hugo supplied it. Our presenter emphasized repeatedly that the best thing for an inexperienced expert witness to do is to work with experienced employing attorneys who know how to rehabilitate witnesses.

• The maintenance of a steady demeanor. It is important for the expert witness to maintain a steady, smooth demeanor regardless of which questions are asked and which side’s attorney asks them. It is especially undesirable to do something such as assume defensive body language when being questioned by the opposing side.

• Attendees learned how to be friendly and smile at appropriate times. Judges and juries are just people, and it helps to appear as relaxed but professional.

• To remain silent when there is an objection by one of the attorneys. Continue speaking only when instructed to do so.

• Attendees learned how best to state the facts. The expert witness should tell the truth plainly and simply. Attendees learned how the expert’s testimony should not become more complicated or strained when it appears to be harmful to the client the expert represents. The expert witness should not try to answer questions to which s/he does not know the answer but should simply say that s/he does not know or does not have enough information to form an opinion.

• Attendees learned to control the pace. The opposing attorney can sometimes attempt to crush a witness by rapid fire questions. The expert witness should avoid firing back answers at the same pace. This can avoid giving the appearance that s/he is arguing with the examining attorney. It also helps prevent her from being rushed and overwhelmed to the point of making mistakes.

• Most importantly, Hugo imparted invaluable techniques to survive cross examination. Attendees learned how to testify effectively on both direct and cross examination, basic courtroom procedures, and tricks for general survival on the witness stand. Attendees were told how to improve their techniques on how to offer testimony about damages and restitution while learning to know when to draw the line between aggressive testimony and improper advocacy. All our attendees walked away with more effective report writing and presentation skills as well as benefiting from a solid exploration of the different types of evidence and related legal remedies.

Again, thanks to all, attendees and partners, for making our May 2019 training event such a resounding success!

The Man in the Mirror

I readily confess I would not have won any awards for effective delegation during my early years as a fraud examiner/information systems audit professional. To my mind the buck stopped with the guy in the mirror I saw shaving every morning. I prided myself on being personally capable of performing every routine task of every assignment involved in whatever function I was managing at the time. What finally weaned me from the practice of doing it all myself was the threat of burn-out and the seemingly ever-increasing demands of a typical work week of seventy hours.

The demands of managing in an assurance environment featuring risk assessments, regulatory compliance, fraud investigations, corporate governance, and engagement quality control can be crushing for any new (or not so new) manager but especially so for those unwilling or who simply lack the skills to adequately delegate; those skills usually only come with experience.

While some new to assurance or investigative management may think delegating simply means passing off work to subordinates, the lines of delegation also can occur laterally to peers and upward to superiors. The distinction is important, because in delegating to subordinates, one of the goals is to achieve long term investigative team development. This goal comes with a shift in emphasis from managing to leading. Managing is about getting the work done, whereas leading fosters learning, growth, and a greater sense of responsibility among individual members of the your team.

According to the ACFE, the first step to successful delegation within examination work is recognizing when to let go rather than trying to do too much. For CFEs new to leadership responsibilities, a willingness to delegate can be challenging. CFEs typically advance to management positions as a result of their individual achievements and performance. This advancement fosters a sense that the person best suited to accomplish a given task is the one whose already done it satisfactorily, but that is not the way leaders should think. Even though an assurance professional has advanced to a management position based on past accomplishments, he or she needs to take a broader view of what is in the long term interest of her function group and/or organization. A conscious commitment to delegation can enable the individual manager to not only increase their personal productivity but also (and here I speak from personal experience) gain better control of their lives and, hence, prevent burnout.

An honest self-examination is a precursor to delegation. CFEs and other assurance professionals in a management position need to understand their capabilities and role(s) within the organization. One way to do this is by considering their vision for and the needs of the organization. Then, what are the assurance function’s immediate and long-term goals, including capabilities and developmental needs? Realizing that trusting others, not just one self, to do a high quality job is a personal decision and there can be many barriers to it. What is the nature of your own personal career goals and your priorities for work-life balance? A periodic, wholly candid assessment of these and similar issues can give any manager a better perspective on his or her motives in relation to delegating.

Delegating is more than just shoving work on someone who possesses the skill set to fit the task. Rather, delegating is an opportunity to cultivate members of the investigative team by increasing the number of people who are capable of taking on a bigger role, which can help strengthen the team and create a succession plan in the event of unexpected personnel turnover. How often have we all been witness to the chaos which can ensure when a key staff member leaves and no-one has been groomed to fill her place?

To the extent possible, an new staff CFE should be matched strategically with an assignment that is a bit above his or her head as a way of providing a positive learning experience. Delegating with career development in mind means managers will need to resist playing the role of lifeguard. Subordinates will struggle at times, but managers shouldn’t be too quick to act as helicopter parents and come to the rescue. Instead, managers should remain confident in the basic capabilities of their staff and allow reasonable time for learning and growth, which enables the team to gain experience and add more value to the organization.

Knowing whether a particular assignment is within an examiner’s potential capabilities and can enable him or her to grow professionally, however, is often not an easy task. As managers delegate assignments, they should consider not limiting assignments only to those areas in which an investigator has had prior experience. Also, managers need to avoid the tendency toward primarily delegating interesting or important assignments to the most favored team members; managers should groom everyone on the team not just the superstars; it’s the superstars who are, let’s face it, the most desirable targets for external recruiters. The same is true for undesirable assignments; managers also should spread those among the whole team, which can demonstrate that everyone is treated fairly. A thoughtful delegating process helps keep the assurance team challenged and motivated, thereby reducing the likelihood of losing promising but insufficiently challenged staff members.

Initial parameters need to be established to prevent misunderstandings, deficient productivity, or delays in the timely completion of examinations. All parties involved should have a clear understanding of the delegated assignment and of expectations. However, managers should refrain from giving excessively detailed instructions. Successful delegating does not mean micromanaging anyone. Instead, managers should consider focusing on discussing the objectives, scope, and outcomes of the assignment. When examiners are allowed the flexibility and freedom to perform their work, they not only learn more but also may show considerable ingenuity. Managing CFEs can foster an environment of participative management by encouraging input from subordinates toward refining the plans, expectations, and deadlines, as well as emphasize how the present investigation fits into the larger scheme. When a team member sees the whole process rather than only a part, he or she is less likely to miss a critical matter and may become more motivated to deliver a quality product.

The ACFE recommends that the CFE engagement manager should give his or her subordinates authority to operationally pursue their assignment and to make decisions as they see fit. Delegating the authority is no less important than assigning the responsibility for a task. In the absence of conferring an appropriate level of authority, the team member’s performance could be undercut. Also, examination managers should keep an open mind by welcoming new ideas, innovative suggestions, and alternative proposals from others. Nothing is more motivating for a subordinate than to realize that he or she has a significant ownership stake in the results. This is another reason why managers should delegate as much of an entire assignment, rather than a small portion, as possible. Doing so can help instill a sense of importance and self-esteem for the staff investigator no matter what the number of years of their experience.

Communication is an essential element of successful delegating, and regular updates about progress, results, and deadlines should occur weekly, or sometimes daily, depending on the staff member’s level of experience and the type of assignment. Meetings can be conducted face-to-face, by phone, or through videoconferencing and do not always have to be long to be effective.

As managers check on progress, they should be supportive rather than intrusive and avoid putting a subordinate on the defensive by being too critical. Managers also should allow for communication flexibility by encouraging more immediate contact between progress meetings in the event a matter requiring urgent attention unexpectedly develops.

Any significant delegated assignment should culminate with a constructive evaluation of the subordinate’s performance. Often, there is a tendency to view the simple act of delegation itself as work done. As an old colleague of mine used to say, “A task delegated is a task completed.” Even in a case where the smaller scope of a subordinate’s assignment does not merit an exit session, it is still a boost for team morale to give recognition and show gratitude for the work done.

I have never met an experienced (and successful) CFE investigation team leader who did not embrace the role and significance of delegating. However, the ability to delegate depends on trust, communication, and encouragement. When delegating, assurance managers need to accept the risk that mistakes can and will occur and remember that professionals can learn from their mistakes. Not only is valuable experience gained by the investigative team, but the manager’s time also is freed up for more critical tasks and projects. In the long run, a commitment to delegation serves to strengthen any team of investigators as well as benefit our client organization, whatever and wherever that might be.

An Ancient Skill

I remember Professor Jerome Taylor in his graduate class at the University of Chicago introducing us to the complexities of what the ancients called the trivium.  Because the setting for the process of fraud examination is so often fraught with emotion and confusion, even a beginning fraud examiner quickly realizes that presenting evidence collected during examination fieldwork merely as a succession of facts often isn’t enough to fully convince clients and to adequately address their many concerns (many of which always seem to emerge all at once). To capture stakeholders’ attention, and to elicit a satisfactory response, CFEs need to possess some degree of rhetorical skill.

Rhetoric refers to the use of language to persuade and instruct. Throughout the Middle Ages, European universities taught rhetoric to beginning students as one of three foundational topics composing what was known as the trivium. Logic and grammar, the other two foundational topics, refer to the mechanics of thought and analysis, and to the mechanics of language, respectively. We CFEs and forensic accountants essentially follow the trivium in our work, whether we realize it or not. After gathering evidence through fieldwork, we apply logic to analyze that evidence and to present our vision of the facts to our client organizations in our final reports. We also use grammatical rules to structure text within our reports and memorandum.

Applying the trivium requires a balanced approach; too much focus on any one of the three components to the exclusion of the others can lead to ineffective communication. Fraud examiners need to consider all three trivium components evenly and avoid the common trap of collecting too much evidence or performing too much analysis in the belief that such concentrations will help strengthen our final reports.

The ancient Greeks defined three key components of rhetoric, the speech itself (text), the speaker delivering the speech (author), and those who listen to the speech (audience). Collectively, these components form what’s called the rhetorical triangle. For CFEs, the triangle’s three points equate to the final report or memorandum, the CFE him or herself, and our clients or stakeholders. All three of the rhetorical triangle components are interrelated, and they are each essential to the success of all investigative and/or assurance work. Each should be considered before any engagement and kept in mind throughout the engagement life cycle but especially during the report writing and presentation process.

Although the investigative team lead would be considered the primary author, each of the engagement team members plays a supporting role by authoring observations and preliminary findings that are then compiled into an integrated report. The person performing the important task of draft reviewer also has a role to play, ensuring that the final report meets ACFE and other applicable standards and fulfills the overall purpose defined in the planning document.

The character of the intended audience should be considered with each engagement. Audience members are not homogeneous; each may have different perspectives and expectations. For this reason, CFEs need to consult with them and consider their perspectives even before the engagement begins to the extent feasible.

Once engagement fieldwork has been completed, the authors compose a written report containing the results of the investigative field work. The report represents perhaps the most important outcome communication from the examination process, and the best chance to focus the client’s attention.

When crafting the final report, three separate but interrelated components, designated ‘appeals’, need to be considered and applied: ethos, logos, and pathos.

Ethos is an appeal to the audience’s perception of the honesty, authority, and expertise of the report’s author. Closely related to reputation, ethos is established when the audience determines that the author is qualified, trustworthy, and believable. Because the term ethics derives from ethos, adhering to ACFEs standards and Code of Ethics supports this appeal.

Some helpful formulations, in the form of questions, to keep in mind regarding the ethos component when formulating your report are:

–What assumptions does your audience likely make about you and the investigative process, what you produce, and the level of service you and your team provide?
–Is there a way to take advantage of their positive assumptions to improve the fraud investigation process for the future?
–What can you do to overcome their negative assumptions, if any?
–Do you create the expectation that what you produce and the level of service you provide will be above average or even exceptional?
–Are you using all the available channels to create an impression of excellence?

For CFEs with an on-going or long-term employment or other relationship with the client, the need to consider ethos begins long before the start of any particular engagement. Ethos is supported by the structure and governance of the fraud examination or forensic accounting function as well as by the selection of team members, including alignment between the type of engagements to be performed and the team’s qualifications, education, and training. The ethos appeal is also established by choosing to comply with examination and audit standards and with other professional requirements to demonstrate a high level of credibility, build trust, and gain a favorable reputation over time.

Logos appeals to the audience’s sense of logic, encompassing factors such as the reason and analysis used, the underlying meaning communicated, and the supporting facts and figures presented. The written document’s visual appeal, diagrams, charts, and other elements, as well as how the information is organized, presented, and structured, also factor into logos. Story conveys meaning. From the time we’re born we learn about the world around us through narratives. This aspect of logos continues to be important throughout our lives. We experience the world through our senses, particularly our eyes. Design and visual attractiveness are key to engaging an audience made up of the visual animals we are.

–Is what you are presenting easy to understand?
–Is your presentation design simple and pleasing to the eye?

Investigators need for logos is addressed by their written report’s executive summary; detailed observations, and findings as well as appendices with secondary information that can be used to further instruct the audience. The report describes the origin, drivers and overall purpose of the engagement, its findings, and conclusions. Ultimately, from a rhetorical standpoint, examiners try to tell a convincing, self-contained short story that conveys key messages to the audience. The structure and format of the report, together with its textual content and visual elements, also support the logos appeal.

Like ethos, the logos appeal is fulfilled long before an individual engagement begins. It starts with the rational, periodic assessment and identification of business processes at high-risk for fraud; areas requiring management’s attention, resulting in the development and implementation of effective anti-fraud controls. CFEs are then prepared to undertake engagements, executing steps to collect valid and relevant evidence to justify conclusions and to guide and support the client’s initiation of successful prosecutions.

Pathos is an appeal to the audience’s emotions, either positive (joy, excitement, hopefulness) or negative (anger, sadness). It is used to establish compassion or empathy. Unlike logos, pathos focuses on the audience’s irrational modes of response. The Greeks maintained that pathos was the strongest and most reliable form of persuasion. Pathos can be especially powerful when it is used well and connects with the audience’s underlying values and perspective. Used incorrectly, however, pathos can distort or detract from the impact of actual factual evidence.

Examiners should strive to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and look for ways to better understand the client/audience’s perspective. Attention to pathos can help support not only examination objectives, but the overarching goal of creating a satisfactory investigative outcome. CFEs should also be mindful of their overall tone and word selection, and ensure they balance negative and positive comments giving credit to individuals and circumstances where credit is due.

To some extent, pathos is interdependent with ethos and logos: The sting of negative results can be reduced somewhat by the positive effect of the other two appeals. For example, clients/audience members are more likely to accept bad news from someone they trust and respect, and who they know has followed a rational, structured approach to the engagement. But at the same time, ethos and logos can be offset by negative pathos. Preferred practice generally consists of holding regular meetings with corporate counsel and/or other critical stakeholders over the course of the investigation, maintaining transparency, and providing stakeholders with an opportunity to address investigative findings or provide evidence that counters or clarifies the CFEs observations.

In summary, while all three elements of rhetorical appeal play an important role in communication and while none should be neglected, CFEs and forensic accountants should pay particular attention to pathos. The dominance of feelings over reason is part of human nature, and examiners should consider this powerful element when planning and executing engagements and reporting the results. By doing so, certified investigators can help ensure audiences accept our message and make informed judgements related to fraud recovery, prosecution and possible restitution.

Then & Now

I was chatting over lunch last week at the John Marshal Hotel here in Richmond with a former officer of our Chapter when the subject of interviewing came up; interviewing generally, but also viewed in the context of the challenges and obstacles that fraud examiners of the next generation will face as they increasingly confront their peers, the present and future fraudsters of the Millennial and Z generations.

Joseph Wells says somewhere, in one of his excellent writings, that skill as an interviewer is one of the most important attributes that a CFE or forensic accountant can possess and probably the one of all our skills most worthy of on-going cultivation. But, as with any other professional craft, there are common pitfalls of which newer professionals especially need to be aware to increase their chances of successfully achieving their interviewing objectives.

Failure to plan sufficiently is without a doubt, the primary error interviewers make. It seems that the more experience an interviewer has, the less he or she prepares. Whether because of busyness or overconfidence, this pitfall spells disaster. Not only does efficiency suffer because the interviewer might have to schedule another interview, but effectiveness suffers because the interviewer might never discover needed information. Fraudsters often take time before interviews to prepare answers to anticipated questions. The ACFE reports having briefed career criminals on their tactics, thoughts and behaviors about interviews, and they typically respond, “I had my routines that I was going to run down on them” and “I always had my story made up”.

During his or her planning for an interview, the CFE must carefully consider the interviewee’s role in the fraud and his or her relationship to the fraudster (if the interviewee isn’t the fraudster), available information, desired outcomes from the interview and primary interview strategy plus alternate, viable strategies. The success or failure of the interview is determined prior to the time the interviewer walks into the room. Either the interviewer is part of his or her own plan or she is part of someone else’s. The CFE, not the interviewee, has to control the interview.

An interviewer whose mind is made up before an interview even begins is courting danger. Confirmation bias (also known as confirmatory bias or myside bias) greatly decreases the likelihood that an interviewer dismisses, ignores or filters any contradictory information during an interview, whether the interviewee expresses it verbally or non-verbally. Thus, interviewers might not even be aware that they’re missing important information that could increase the examination’s effectiveness.

How many times have experienced practitioners been told by colleagues that they believed that particular interviewees were guilty only to later discover they were actually innocent? If such practitioners hadn’t been aware that their colleagues could have caused them to have confirmation bias, they might have dismissed contradictory interviewee behaviors during subsequent interviews as minor aberrations. It’s imperative that the interviewer maintain an open mind, which isn’t so much a skill set as an attitude. The effective interviewer gives the interviewee a chance by looking at all the data, listening to others and theorizing a hypothesis without precluding anything. Also, the ACFE tells us, if the interviewer maintains an open mind, the interviewee will perceive it and be more cooperative.

A guiding principle should be, the interview is not about the CFE; the CFE is conducting the interview. The interview is a professional encounter. If you don’t conduct the interview, someone else can conduct it, but the interviewee remains the same. Interviewers are replaceable; interviewees aren’t. Never lose sight of this foundational truth. If the interviewer personalizes the interview process s/he will focus on his or her inward emotions rather than on the interviewee’s verbal and non-verbal behavior. An interviewer’s unfettered emotions will have a debilitating impact on a number of levels.

If the interviewer becomes personally involved in an interview, the interviewer becomes the interviewee and the interviewee becomes the interviewer. Most of us want to search for connections to others. But if we connect too strongly, we will become so similar (at least in our own minds) to interviewees that we might have difficulty believing the interviewee is guilty or is providing inaccurate information. Once that occurs, the interviewer probably wont obtain necessary evidence or could discount incriminating evidence.

Before each interview, remind yourself that your objective is to collect evidence in a dispassionate manner; you won’t become emotionally involved. Focus on the overall objective of the interview so that you won’t be caught up in details that could connect you too closely with the interviewee. If, for example, you discover that the interviewee is from the same part of the country you’re from, remind yourself of the many persons you know who also are from that area so you’ll dilute the influence that this information could have on your interview.

With regard to interviewing members of the present and up-and-coming generation, a majority of our youngest future citizens spend an inordinate amount of time looking at plastic screens as a significant mode for learning, communicating, being entertained and experiencing the world instead of interacting directly with others in the same space and time. This places novice CFE interviewers at a disadvantage because they have been formally trained that much of the communication between an interviewer and an interviewee takes place non-verbally. Concurrently, the verbal aspects of communication are replete with meta-messages. For example, what kind of impression does an individual make whose voice inflection rises or falls at the end of a sentence? Can this inflection be as adequately and consistently communicated via a text message compared to in-person communication? This example (and there are many more) contains the essence of the interviewing process. Unfortunately, nuances, interpersonal communication subtleties and appropriate responses that were previously thought to be integral parts of the social modeling process aren’t as readily available to the current generation of interviewers and interviewees as they were to previous generations. Research has shown that electronic devices, such as tablets, cellphones and laptops shorten attention spans. Web surfers usually spend no more than 10 to 20 seconds on a page before ads or links distract them and they move on to burrow down into succeeding rabbit holes.

A great deal of communication now takes place via 244-character communication snippets on Twitter. The average person checks his or her phone once every six minutes. Psychologists have recently coined the term ‘nomophobia’, the fear of being out of cellphone contact; shortened from ‘no-mobile-phone-phobia. A 2015 global study reported that students’ ‘addiction’ to media is similar to drug cravings.

The attention span of the average adult is believed to have fallen from 12 minutes in 1998 to five minutes in 2014. If interviewees’ attentive capacities are just five minutes, or less, then after that point interviews provide diminishing returns. Our attention deficits probably result from a lack of self-discipline and the delusional belief that we can cognitively multi-task. We can’t do anything about our natural limitations, but we can discipline ourselves to pay attention. We can also plan and conduct our interviews with few distractions. Interviewers new and experienced should require that all participants turn off their cellphones and, when possible, interviewers should try to ask questions in an unpredictable order.

So, we can expect that a new generation of fraud examiners will soon be interviewing individuals for extended periods of time who have as much of a dearth of direct, face-to-face interpersonal communication as they do. At the extreme, we can envision two or more uncomfortable people in an interview room. All of whom can only remain in the moment for five minutes or less and are fidgety because they need plastic-screen fixes.

An additional challenge will be that CFEs of the Millennial and Z generations will soon be spending hours interviewing older interviewees who are more familiar, explicitly and implicitly, with the subtleties of interpersonal communication. These are people who have spent significantly more time in direct, face-to-face communication. The interpersonal communication-challenged interviewer will be at a significant disadvantage when interviewing guilty, guilty-knowledge, deceptive and/or antagonistic interviewees. As my lunch companion pointed out, many experienced fraudsters are master manipulators of inexperienced interviewers.

It is urgent that younger fraud examiners and forensic accountants be instructed in the strongest terms to put down their plastic screens and practice engagement with others in direct communication, with friends, family and those who cross their paths in the normal flow of life. As a lead CFE examiner or supervisor, encourage your younger employee-colleagues to write down their communication goals for each day. Suggest they read all they can on face-to face interviewing and questioning plus verbal and non-verbal behaviors. They can take interviewing and public-speaking classes or join a toastmasters group. Anything to get them to converse and observe body language and expressions.

Interviewing techniques are the vehicles that ride up and down the road of interpersonal communication. If that road isn’t adequate, then drivers can’t maneuver their vehicles. Your younger employees are the only persons who can bring themselves up to the necessary interpersonal speed limit to make their one-on-one interviews successful.

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.

The Right Question, the Right Way

As every CFE knows, an integral part of the fraud examination process involves obtaining information from people. Regardless of the interview’s objective, all CFEs should embrace the role of interviewer and use the time-tested techniques recommended to us by the ACFE. But asking the right questions does not necessarily ensure key information will be uncovered; an effective interviewer also recognizes the need to separate truth from deception. Consequently, crafting effective questions, understanding the communication dynamics at play, actively participating in the interview process, and remaining alert to signs of deception will help examiners increase the effectiveness and efficiency of our interviews and of our overall engagements.

Some interviewers try to gather as much information using as few questions as possible and end up receiving convoluted or vague responses. Others seek confirmation of every detail, which can quickly turn an interview into an unproductive probing of minutia. Balancing thoroughness and efficiency is imperative to obtaining the necessary and relevant facts without overburdening the interviewee. Because the location of this line varies by interviewee, CFEs can find this balance most effectively by ensuring they ask only clear questions throughout the interview.

Some individuals might respond to a question in a way that doesn’t provide a direct answer or that veers off topic. Sometimes these responses are innocent; sometimes they are not. To make the most of an interview, examiners must remain in control of the situation, regardless of how the interviewee responds.  Being assertive does not require being impolite, however. In some instances, wording questions as a subtle command (e.g., “Tell me about…. or “Please describe….) can help establish the interview relationship. Additionally, remaining in control does not mean dissuading the interviewee from exploring pertinent topics that are outside the planned discussion points.  Interview questions can be structured in several ways, each with its own strengths, weaknesses, and ideal usage. Open questions ask the interviewee to describe or explain something. Most examination interviews should rely heavily on open questions, as these provide the best view of how things operate and the perspective of the staff member involved in a particular area. They also enable the reviewer to observe the interviewee’s demeanor and attitude, which can provide additional information about specific issues. However, if the CFE believes an individual might not stay on topic or may avoid providing certain information, open questions should be used cautiously.  In contrast, closed questions can be answered with a specific, definitive response, most often “yes” or “no.” They are not meant to provide the big picture but can be useful in gathering details such as amounts and dates. Examiners should use closed questions sparingly in an informational interview, as they do not encourage the flow of information as effectively as open questions.

Occasionally, the questioner might want to direct the interviewee toward a specific point or evoke a certain reply. Leading questions can be useful in such circumstances by exploring an assumption, a fact or piece of information, that the interviewee did not provide previously. When used appropriately, such questions can help the interviewer confirm facts that the interviewee might be hesitant to discuss. Examples of leading questions include: “So there have been no changes in the process since last year?” and “You sign off on these exception reports, correct?” If the interviewee does not deny the assumption, then the fact is confirmed. However,  before using leading questions, the interviewer should raise the topic with open questions and allow the interviewee the chance to volunteer information.

The examiner should establish and maintain an appropriate level of eye contact with the interviewee throughout the interview to personalize the interaction and build rapport. However, the appropriate level of eye contact varies by culture and even by person; consequently, the examiner should pay attention to the interviewee to determine the level of eye contact that makes him or her comfortable.

People tend to mirror each other’s body language subconsciously as a way of bonding and creating rapport. CFEs can help put interviewees at ease by subtly reflecting their body language. Further, the skilled interviewer can assess the level of rapport established by changing posture and by watching the interviewee’s response. This information can help CFEs determine whether to move into sensitive areas of questioning or to continue establishing a connection with the individual.

Confirming periodically that the examiner is listening can encourage interviewees to continue talking. For example, the interviewer can provide auditory confirmation with a simple “mmm hmmm” and nonverbal confirmation by nodding or leaning toward the interviewee during his or her response.

When the interviewee finishes a narrative response, the examiner can encourage additional information by echoing back the last point the person made. This confirms that the interviewer is actively listening and absorbing the information, and it provides a starting point for the person to continue the response.

Occasionally, the examiner might summarize the information provided to that point so that the interviewee can affirm, clarify, or correct the interviewer’s understanding.

Most often, the greatest impediment to an effective interview is the interviewer him or herself.  While it is clearly important for the interviewer to observe, to listen, and to assess the subject in a variety of ways, the role of the interviewer, and the effect he or she has on the interview process, cannot be minimized.

The interviewer typically focuses on the subject as the person who will provide the information he or she seeks. The interviewer concentrates on establishing rapport, listening effectively, analyzing the subject’s verbal and nonverbal communication, and gauging how much or how little the subject is telling her. These are valid areas of concentration for the interviewer. One significant risk is that the interviewer may pay too little attention to the negative influences s/he can bring to the interview, process. The terms interview and communication are interchangeable, and effective communication is a two-way street. What makes the interviewer an effective communicator and effective interviewer is not just the signals he or she picks up from the subject but also the signals, the information, the tone, and the body language he or she sends to the subject. It is highly presumptuous of the interviewer to think he or she has little or no effect on the subject and that the subject is not evaluating, assessing, and analyzing the interviewer.

The interviewer’s style of dress, jewelry, and grooming may tell the subject as much about the interviewer as does the interviewer’s demeanor. If the interviewer is overdressed for the occasion, does it make the subject feel inferior or intimidated? If too casual, does the interviewer send a signal of the lack of importance of the interview and, as a result, does the subject become too relaxed or not as attentive? Attire should have a desired effect. For example, when interviewing an enforcement officer or other professional who is familiar with uniforms and clothing as indicators of status, it may be appropriate to wear a coat and tie. In general, it is best to always to err on the side of conservative dress for the circumstances.

The examiner should not attempt to interview two or more persons at one time unless there is no other option. It is more difficult to control an interview with two or more subjects. One subject may be more dominant than the other. The subjects will influence each other’s memories. Some subjects will not want to embarrass themselves in front of a peer or supervisor. The environment for confidential communications will be adversely affected.

When the interviewer responds to the subject’s responses, he sends signals. At times, it might be advisable to not write notes down at the time the individual tells the interviewer something sensitive. Rather, the interviewer might consider devoting his attention to the subject and writing down the sensitive information after the conversation has moved away from the sensitive area.  The interviewer should never become argumentative, antagonistic, or belligerent. The use of the  “Good Cop, Bad Cop” routine can have unwanted results, especially long term. The CFE interviewer should use tact, speak clearly and with authority but without use of threatening language. The interviewer should consistently set a professional tone.

Finally, all individuals want to be shown respect. Maintaining the personal dignity of the subject is critical for the success of the interview and follow-up efforts. Everyone wants respect, from homeless persons to top executives. To be shown respect, especially if the subject is not accustomed to it, is disarming and contributes to that essential, professional tone.

Structure & Scope

T.J. Jones presented himself as a turnaround specialist to the Chairman of the Board of Central State Corporation, a medium sized, public company, a mid-western manufacturer of computer equipment, who hired him to take over a large, but under-performing division of the company.  Jones immediately set out lofty goals for sales and profits and very quickly replaced all the existing senior staff of the division with new hires loyal to himself. To meet his inflated goals, two of Jones’s managers, in addition to legitimate equipment sales, shipped bricks to distributors and recorded some as sales of equipment to retail distributors and some as inventory out on consignment. No real products left the plant for these “special sales.” The theory was that actual sales would inevitably grow, and the bricks could be replaced later with real products. In the meantime, the unwitting distributors thought they were holding consignment inventory in the unopened cartons.

The result was that overstated sales and accounts receivable quickly caused overstated net income, retained earnings, current assets, working capital, and total assets. Prior to the manipulation, annual sales of the division were $135 million. During the two falsification years of the fraud, sales were $185 million and $362 million. Net income went up from a loss of $20 million to $23 million (income), then to $31 million (income); and the gross margin percent went from 6 percent to 28 percent. The revenue and profit figures outpaced the performance of Central State’s industry category. The accounts receivable collection period grew to 94 days, while it was 70 days elsewhere in the industry.

All the paperwork was in order because the two hand-picked managers had falsified the sales and consignment invoices, even though they did not have customer purchase orders for all the false sales. Shipping papers were in order, and several co-operating shipping employees knew that not every box shipped contained disk drives. Company accounting and control procedures required customer purchase orders or contracts evidencing real orders. A sales invoice was supposed to indicate the products and their prices, and shipping documents were supposed to indicate actual shipment. Sales were always charged to a customer’s account receivable.  During the actual operation of the fraud there were no glaring control omissions that would have pointed to financial fraud. Alert auditors might have noticed the high tension created by concentration on meeting profit goals. Normal selection of sales transactions with vouching to customer orders and shipping documents might have turned up a missing customer order. Otherwise, the paperwork would have seemed to be in order. The problem lay in Jones’ and his managers’ power to override controls and to instruct some shipping staff to send dummy boxes.  Confirmations of distributors’ accounts receivable may have elicited exception responses. The problem was to have a large enough confirmation sample to pick up some of these distributors or to be skeptical enough to send a special sample of confirmations to distributors who took the “sales” near the end of the accounting period. Observation of inventory could have included some routine inspection of goods not on the company’s premises.

The overstatements were not detected. The auditor’s annual confirmation sample was typically small and did not contain any of the false shipments. Tests of detail transactions did not turn up any missing customer orders. The inventory out on consignment was audited by obtaining a written confirmation from the holders, who apparently over the entire period of the fraud had not opened even one of the affected boxes. The remarkable financial performance was attributed to good management.

The fraud was revealed by one of Jones’ subordinate managers who was arrested on an unrelated drug charge and volunteered as a cooperating witness in exchange for the dropping of the drug charge.

This hypothetical case is a good example of the initial situation confronting management when a fraud affecting the financial statements comes to light, often with little or no warning. Everyone involved with company management will have a strong intuitive sense that an investigation is necessary; but the fact is that the company has now lost faith in the validity of its own public disclosures of financial performance.

That will need to be fixed. And it is not enough to simply alert markets that previously issued financial results are wrong; outsiders will want to know what the correct numbers should have been. The only way to find out is to dig into the numbers and distinguish the falsified results from the real ones. Beyond the need to set the numbers straight, the company will need to identify those complicit in the fraud and deal with them. This is not only a quest for justice but the need to restore credibility, and the company will be unable to do so until outsiders are satisfied that the wrongdoing executives and staff have been identified and removed.  Thus, the company needs an audit report on its financial statements. The need for a new audit report arises from the likelihood that, once a company’s financial statements have been found to be unreliable, the company’s external auditor will want to pull its existing, inaccurate,  report.

As a practical matter, pulling its report involves the external auditor’s recommendation that the company issue a press release that previously issued financial statements are not to be relied upon. Once the company issues such a press release, it will be out of compliance with any number of SEC regulations. It will no longer satisfy the threshold prerequisites for trading on the company’s securities exchange. It will be viewed by many, and certainly the plaintiff class action bar, as coming close to having admitted wrongdoing. And everyone on the outside, not to mention its own board of directors, will want answers fast. A critical step in the restoration of important business relationships and a return to compliance with regulatory requirements is the new auditor’s report. And, where fraudulent financial reporting has been discovered, an in-depth and comprehensive investigation is often the only way to get one.

A critical issue at the outset of a financial fraud investigation is its structure and scope. A key attribute for which the external auditor, as well as the SEC, will be on the lookout is that the investigation is overseen by the audit committee. In public companies, it is the audit committee that has explicit legal responsibility for oversight of financial reporting, and accounting fraud falls squarely within the orbit of financial reporting.  In addition, the audit committee, as a matter of statutory design, is structured to be independent and possessed of a level of financial sophistication that makes it the most viable subset of the board of directors to oversee the investigative efforts in this case. It’s also the audit committee that has the statutory power to engage and pay outside advisers even without the consent of management, a statutory power that can be vital if management, or part of management, as in our hypothetical case above, is a participant in the fraud.

The audit committee’s role is to oversee the investigation, not actually conduct it. For that it needs to look to outside professionals, and there are two types. The one is the outside counsel to the audit committee. If the audit committee has not already engaged outside counsel, it needs to do so. It’s audit committee counsel who will conduct the interviews, comb through the financial records, and present factual findings for audit committee consideration. Individual audit committee members may choose to sit in on interviews, and that is their choice. But it’s audit committee counsel who will conduct the investigation. The other group of professionals is the forensic accountants and/or CFEs.  Audit committee counsel, while knowledgeable of financial reporting obligations and investigative techniques, will probably not possess a sufficiently detailed knowledge of accounting systems, generally accepted accounting principles
(GAAP), or computerized ledgers. For that, audit committee counsel is well advised look for help to the category of accountants and fraud examiners specifically trained in digging into financial records for evidence of fraud.

What exactly is the audit committee looking for in such an investigation? There are primarily two things. The first, obviously enough, is what the actual numbers should have been. Often fraudulent entries involve judgment calls where the operative question is not whether the number matches the underlying financial records but whether the judgment behind the number was exercised in good faith.  The operative question for the investigators is whether the executive exercised his judgment in good faith to make the best estimate allowed by reasonably available information. Sometimes it’s not so easy to tell.

Beyond the correct numbers, the second thing for which the investigators are looking is executive complicity. In other words: who did it? Again, the good faith of those potentially involved comes into play. The investigators are not seeking simply whether executives reported financial results that turned out to be wrong. The issue rather is whether the executives tried to get them right. If they did and made an honest mistake or estimated incorrectly, that does not sound like fraud and may not even be a violation of GAAP to begin with. The main point here is that, when it comes to executive complicity, the investigators are ordinarily looking for evidence of wrongful intent (scienter). In other words, they are looking for an intentional misapplication of GAAP or an approach to GAAP that is so reckless as to constitute the equivalent of an intentional misapplication.

The scope of the investigation, then, should not pose too difficult an issue at the outset.  Initially, the scope will be largely defined by the potential improprieties that have been uncovered. The tricky question becomes: how far should the investigators go beyond the suspicious entries? The judgment calls here are formidable. One of the key issues involves the expectations of the external auditor and, beyond that, the SEC. If the scope is not sufficiently broad, the investigation may not be satisfactory to either one. Indeed, an insufficient scope can place the external auditor in a particularly awkward spot insofar as the SEC may subsequently fault not only the audit committee for inadequate scope but the external auditor’s acceptance of the audit committee’s investigative report.

An additional complicating factor involves the way fraud starts and grows. A critical issue to consider is that, overtime, as the Central State example illustrates, the manipulations will often get increasingly aggressive as the perpetrators spread the fraud throughout many line items so that no single account stands out as unusual but a substantial number are affected. For example, to prevent the distortion of accounts receivable from getting too large, Jones and his accomplices spread the fraud into inventory, then asset capitalization, then net income. The spread of the fraud is analogous to pouring a glass of water on a tabletop. It can spread everywhere without getting too deep in any one place.

So, once fraudulent financial reporting has been identified, even in just a few entries, the investigators will want to consider the possibility that it’s a symptom of a broader problem. If the investigators have been lucky enough to nip it in the bud, that may be the end of it.  Unfortunately, if the fraud has gotten big enough to be detected in the first place, such a limited size cannot be assumed. Even where the fraud ostensibly starts out small the need for a broader scope has got to be considered.

The scope of the investigation, therefore, can start out with its parameters guided by the suspicious entries revealed at the outset. In most cases, though, it will need to broaden to ensure that additional areas are not affected as well. Throughout the investigation, moreover, the scope will have to remain flexible. The investigators will have to stay on the lookout for additional clues, and will have to follow where they lead. Faced with an ostensibly ever-widening scope, initial audit committee frustration is both to be expected and understandable. But there is just no practical alternative.

Team Work is Hard Work

From reading posts and comments posted to LinkedIn, it seems that a number of our Chapter members and guests from time to time find themselves involved in internal fraud investigations either as members of internal or external audit units or as sole practitioners.  As CFE’s we know that we can make significant contributions to a financial crime investigation, if we can work effectively, as team members, with the victim company’s internal and external auditors, as well as with other constituents involved in resolving allegations or suspicions of internal fraud. In addition to a thorough knowledge of accounting and auditing, CFE’s bring to bear a variety of skills, including interviewing, data mining and analysis.  We also know that some auditors assume that simply auditing more transactions, with the use of standard procedures, increases the likelihood that fraud will be found. While this can prove to be true in some cases, when there is suspicion of actual fraud, the introduction of competent forensic accounting investigators may be more likely to resolve the issue and bring it to a successful conclusion.

Within the boundaries of an investigation, we CFE’s typically deal with numerous constituencies, each with a different interest and each viewing the situation from a different perspective. These parties to the investigation may well attempt to influence the investigative process, favor their individual concerns, and react to events and findings in terms of personal biases. CFE’s thus often have the task of conveying to all constituencies that the results of the investigation will be more reliable if all participants and interested parties work together as a team and contribute their specific expertise or insight with objectivity. In the highly-charged environment created by a financial crime investigation, the forensic accounting investigator can make a huge contribution just by displaying and encouraging the balance and level headedness which comes from his or her detailed familiarity with the mechanics of the standard types of financial fraud.

The ACFE recommends that all parties with a stake in the process, management, audit committee, auditors, and legal counsel, should always consider including forensic accounting investigators in the front-end process of decision making about an investigation. One of the key initial decisions is, usually, the degree to which the forensic accounting investigators can work with and rely on the work of others, specifically, the internal and external auditors. Another common front-end decision is whether CFE’s—with their knowledge of accounting systems, controls, and typical fraud schemes, may be added to the team that eventually evaluates the organization’s business processes to strengthen the controls that allowed the fraud to occur. Management may at first be inclined to push for a quick result because it feels the company will be further damaged if it continues to operate under a shadow.

Senior executives may be unable or in some cases unwilling to see the full scope of issues and may attempt to limit the investigation, sometimes as a matter of self-protection, or they may seek to persuade the CFE that the issues at hand are immaterial. Whatever happened, it happened on their watch, and they may understandably be very sensitive to the CFE’s intrusion into their domain. Any defensiveness on the part of management should be defused as quickly and as thoroughly as possible, usually through empathy and consideration on the part of the forensic accounting investigator. The party or entity engaging the forensic accounting investigator, for example, the audit committee, management, or counsel, should be committed to a thorough investigation of all issues and is ultimately responsible for the investigation. The committee may engage CFE’s and forensic accounting investigators directly and look to them for guidance, or it may ask outside counsel to engage the CFE, who usually will work at counsel’s direction in fulfilling counsel’s responsibilities to the audit committee.

Every CFE should strive to bring independence and objectivity to the investigation and strive to assist each of the interested parties to achieve their unique but related objectives. As to the CFE’s  objectives, those are determined by the scope of work and the desire to meet the goals of whoever retained their services. Regardless of the differing interests of the various constituencies, forensic accounting investigators must typically answer the following questions:

  • Who is involved?
  • Could there be coconspirators?
  • Was the perpetrator instructed by a higher supervisor not currently a target of the investigation?
  • How much is at issue or what is the total impact on the financial statements?
  • Over what period did this occur?
  • Have we identified all material schemes?
  • How did this happen?
  • How was it identified, and could it have been detected earlier?
  • What can be done to deter a recurrence?

CFE’s should always keep in mind that they are primarily fact finders and not typically engaged to reach or provide conclusions, or, more formally, opinions. This differs from the financial auditor’s role. The financial auditor is presented with the books and records to be audited and determines the nature, extent, and timing of audit procedures. On one hand, the financial statements are management’s responsibility, and an auditor confirms they have been prepared in accordance with generally accepted accounting principles after completing these procedures and assessing the results. The CFE or forensic accounting investigator, on the other hand, commands a different set of skills and works at the direction of an employer that may be management, the audit committee, counsel, or an auditing firm itself.

Teaming with all concerned parties together with the internal and external auditors, the forensic accounting investigator should strive to bring independence and objectivity to the investigation and strive to assist each of the interested parties to achieve each team member’s unique but related objectives; management understandably may be eager to bring the investigation to a quick conclusion. The chief financial officer may be defensive over the fact that his or her organization allowed this to happen;   the board of directors, through the independent members of its audit committee, is likely to focus on conducting a thorough and complete investigation, but its members may lack the experience needed to assess the effort. In addition, they may be concerned about their personal reputations and liability. The board is likely to look to legal counsel and in some cases, to forensic accounting investigators to define the parameters of the project;  as to counsel, in most investigations in which counsel is involved, they are responsible for the overall conduct of the investigation and will assign and allocate resources accordingly; the internal auditor may have a variety of objectives, including not alienating management, staying on schedule to complete the annual audit plan, and not opening the internal audit team to criticism. The internal audit team may also feel embarrassed, angry, and defensive that it did not detect the wrongdoing; the external auditor may have several concerns, including whether the investigative team will conduct an investigation of adequate scope, whether the situation suggests retaining forensic accountants from the auditors’ firm, whether forensic accountants should be added to the audit team, and even whether the investigation will implicate the quality of past audits.

In summary, team work is complex, hard work.  While fraud is not an everyday occurrence at most companies, boards and auditing firms should anticipate the need to conduct a financial fraud investigation at some time in the future.  CFE’s can be an integral part of the planning for such investigations and can be of great help in designing the pre-planned team work protocols that ensure that, if a fraud exists, there is a high probability that it will be identified completely and dealt with in a timely and appropriate manner.