Tag Archives: ethics

Sniffing it Out

The first Virginia governor I worked for directly was John Dalton, who was fond of saying that his personal gauge for ethically challenged behavior was the smell test, i.e., did any proposed action (and its follow-on implications) have the odor of appropriateness. Philosophical theories provide the bases for most useful practical decision approaches and aids, although a majority of seasoned executives are unaware of how and why this is so. Whatever the foundation of the phenomena may be, most experienced directors, executives, professional accountants (and governors) appear to have developed tests and commonly used rules of thumb that can be used to assess the ethicality of decisions on a preliminary basis.

If these preliminary tests give rise to concerns, most think a more thorough analysis should be performed. It is often appropriate (and quite common in practice) for subordinate managers and other employees to be asked to check a proposed decision in a quick, preliminary manner to see if an additional full-blown ethical or practicality analysis is required. These quick tests are often referred to as sniff tests. If any of these quick tests are negative, employees are asked to seek out someone like the corporate counsel or an ethics officer (if there is one) for consultation, or to personally perform a full-blown analysis of the proposed action. This analysis is usually retained, and perhaps even reviewed by upper management.

Some of the more common sniff tests employed by managers with whom I’ve worked are:

–Would I be comfortable if this action or decision were to appear on the front page of a national newspaper tomorrow morning?
Will I be proud of this decision?
Will my mother and father be proud of this decision?
Is this action or decision in accord with the corporation’s mission and code?
Does this feel right to me?

Unfortunately, although sniff tests and commonly used ethical rules of thumb are based on ethical principles as popularly conceived and are often useful, they rarely, by themselves, represent anything approaching a comprehensive examination of the confronting decision and therefore can leave the individuals and organization(s) involved vulnerable to making a challengeable choice. For this reason, experts advise that more comprehensive techniques of evaluation should be employed whenever a proposed decision is questionable or likely to have significant consequences. Analysis of specific sniff tests and the related heuristics reveals that they usually focus on a fraction of the comprehensive set of criteria that more complete forms of analysis examine.

Traditionally, an accepted business school case approach to the assessment of a corporate decision and the resulting action has been to evaluate the end results or consequences of the action. To most businesspeople, this evaluation has traditionally been based on the decision’s impact on the interests of the company’s owners or shareholders.

Usually these impacts have been measured in terms of the profit or loss involved, because net profit has been the measure of well-being that shareholders have wanted to maximize. This traditional view of corporate accountability has been modified over the last two decades in two ways. First, the assumption that all shareholders want to maximize only short-term profit appears to represent too narrow a focus. Second, the rights and claims of many non-shareholder groups, such as employees, consumers/clients, suppliers, lenders, environmentalists, host communities, and governments that have a stake or interest in the outcome of the decision, or in the company itself, are being accorded an increased status in corporate decision making.

Modern corporations are increasingly declaring that they are holding themselves self -accountable to shareholders and to non-shareholder groups alike, both of which form the set of stakeholders to which the company pledges to respond. It has become evident (look at the Enron example) that a company cannot reach its full potential, and may even perish, if it loses the support of even one of a select set of its stakeholders known as primary stakeholders.

The assumption of a monolithic shareholder group interested only in short-term profit is undergoing modification primarily because modem corporations are finding their shareholders are to an increasing degree made up of persons and institutional investors who are interested in longer-term time horizons and in how ethically individual businesses are conducted. The latter, who are referred to as ethical investors, apply two screens to investments: Do the investee companies make a profit in excess of appropriate hurdle rates, and do they strive to earn that profit in a demonstrably ethical manner?

Because of the size of the shareholdings of mutual and pension funds, and of other types of institutional investors involved, corporate directors and executives have found that the wishes of ethical investors can be ignored only at their peril. Ethical investors have developed informal and formal networks through which they inform themselves about corporate activity, decide how to vote proxies, and how to approach boards of directors to get them to pay attention to their concerns in such areas as environmental protection, excessive executive compensation, and human rights activities in specific countries and regions. Ethical investors as well as other stakeholder groups, tend to be increasingly unwilling to squeeze the last ounce of profit out of the current year if it means damaging the environment or the privacy rights of other stakeholders. They believe in managing the corporation on a broader basis than short-term profit only. Usually the maximization of profit in a longer than one-year time frame requires harmonious relationships with most stakeholder groups based on the recognition of the interests of those groups.

A negative public relations experience can be a significant and embarrassing price to pay for a decision making process that fails to take the. wishes of stakeholder groups into account. Whether or not special interest groups of private citizens are also shareholders, their capacity to make corporations accountable through social media is evident and growing. The farsighted executive and director will want these concerns taken into account before offended stakeholders have to remind them.

Taking the concerns or interests of stakeholders into account when making decisions, by considering the potential impact of decisions on each stakeholder, is therefore a wise practice if executives want to maintain stakeholder support. However, the multiplicity of stakeholders and stakeholder groups makes this a complex task. To simplify the process, it is desirable to identify and consider a set of commonly held or fundamental stakeholder interests to help focus analyses and decision making on ethical dimensions; stakeholder interests such as the following:

1.Their interest(s) should be better off as a result of the decision.
2. The decision should result in a fair distribution of benefits and burdens.
3. The decision should not offend any of the rights of any stakeholder, including the decision maker, and ..
4. The resulting behavior should demonstrate duties owed as virtuously as expected.

To some extent, these fundamental interests have to be tempered by the realities facing decision makers. For example, although a proposed decision should maximize the betterment of all stakeholders, trade-offs often have to be made between stakeholders’ interests. Consequently, the incurrence of pollution control costs may be counter to the interests of short-term profits that are of interest to some current shareholders and managers. Similarly, there are times when all stakeholders will find a decision acceptable even though one or more of them, or the groups they represent, may be worse off as a result.

In recognition of the requirement for trade-offs and for the understanding that a decision can advance the well-being of all stakeholders as a group, even if some individuals are personally worse off, this fundamental interest should be modified to focus on the well-being of stakeholders rather than only on their betterment. This modification represents a shift from utilitarianism to consequentialism. Once the focus on betterment is relaxed to shift to well-being, the need to analyze the impact of a decision in terms of all four fundamental interests becomes apparent. It is possible, for example, to find that a proposed decision may produce an overall benefit, but the distribution of the burden of producing that decision may be so debilitating to the interests of one or more stakeholder groups that it may be considered grossly unfair. Alternatively, a decision may result in an overall net benefit and be fair, but may offend the rights of a stakeholder and therefore be considered not right. For example, deciding not to recall a marginally flawed product may be cost effective, but would not be considered to be right if users could be seriously injured. Similarly, a decision that does not demonstrate the character, integrity, or courage expected will be considered ethically suspect by stakeholders.

A professional CFE can use an assessment of our client organization’s stakeholder ethical concerns in making pro-active recommendations about fraud detection and prevention strategies and in conducting investigations and should be ready to prepare or assist in such assessments for employers or clients just as they currently do in other fraud deterrence related business processes.

Although many hard-numbers-oriented investigators will be wary of becoming involved with the soft risk assessment of management’s tone-at-the-top ethically shaped decisions, they should bear in mind that the world is changing to put a much higher value on the quality and impact of management’s whole governance structure, the posture of which cannot failure to negatively or positively affect the design of the client’s fraud control and prevention programs.

The Human Financial Statement

A finance professor of mine in graduate school at the University of Richmond was fond of saying, in relation to financial statement fraud, that as staff competence goes down, the risk of fraud goes up. What she meant by that was that the best operated, most flawless control ever put in place can be tested and tested and tested again and score perfectly every time. But its still no match for the employee who doesn’t know, or perhaps doesn’t even care, how to operate that control; or for the manager who doesn’t read the output correctly, or for the executive who hides part of a report and changes the numbers in the rest. That’s why CFEs and the members of any fraud risk assessment team (especially our client managers who actually own the process and its results), should always take a careful look at the human component of risk; the real-world actions, and lack thereof, taken by real-life employees in addressing the day-to-day duties of their jobs.

ACFE training emphasizes that client management must evaluate whether it has implemented anti-fraud controls that adequately address the risk that a material misstatement in the financial statements will not be prevented or detected timely and then focus on fixing or developing controls to fill any gaps. The guidance offers several specific suggestions for conducting top-down, risk-based anti-fraud focused evaluations, and many of them require the active participation of staff drawn from all over the assessed enterprise. The ACFE documentation also recommends that management consider whether a control is manual or automated, its complexity, the risk of management override, and the judgment required to operate it. Moreover, it suggests that management consider the competence of the personnel who perform the control or monitor its performance.

That’s because the real risk of financial statement misstatements lies not in a company’s processes or the controls around them, but in the people behind the processes and controls who make the organization’s control environment such a dynamic, challenging piece of the corporate puzzle. Reports and papers that analyze fraud and misstatement risk use words like “mistakes” and “improprieties.” Automated controls don’t do anything “improper.” Properly programmed record-keeping and data management processes don’t make “mistakes.” People make mistakes, and people commit improprieties. Of course, human error has always been and will always be part of the fraud examiner’s universe, and an SEC-encouraged, top-down, risk-based assessment of a company’s control environment, with a view toward targeting the control processes that pose the greatest misstatement risk, falls nicely within most CFE’s existing operational ambit. The elevated role for CFEs, whether on staff or in independent private practice, in optionally conducting fraud risk evaluations offers our profession yet another chance to show its value.

Focusing on the human element of misstatement fraud risk is one important way our client companies can make significant progress in identifying their true financial statement and other fraud exposures. It also represents an opportunity for management to identify the weak links that could ultimately result in a misstatement, as well as for CFEs to make management’s evaluation process a much simpler task. I can remember reading many articles in the trade press these last years in which commentators have opined that dramatic corporate meltdowns like Wells Fargo are still happening today, under today’s increased regulatory strictures, because the controls involved in those frauds weren’t the problem, the people were. That is certainly true. Hence, smart risk assessors are integrating the performance information they come across in their risk assessments on soft controls into management’s more quantitative, control-related evaluation data to paint a far more vivid picture of what the risks look like. Often the risks will wear actual human faces. The biggest single factor in calculating restatement risk as a result of a fraud relates to the complexity of the control(s) in question and the amount of human judgment involved. The more complex a control, the more likely it is to require complicated input data and to involve highly technical calculations that make it difficult to determine from system output alone whether something is wrong with the process itself. Having more human judgment in the mix gives rise to greater apparent risk.

A computer will do exactly what you tell it to over and over; a human may not, but that’s what makes humans special, special and risky. In the case of controls, especially fraud prevention related controls, our human uniqueness can manifest as simple afternoon sleepiness or family financial troubles that prove too distracting to put aside during the workday. So many things can result in a mistaken judgment, and simple mistakes in judgment can be extremely material to the final financial statements.

CFEs, of course, aren’t in the business of grading client employees or of even commenting to them about their performance but whether the fraud risk assessment in question is related to financial report integrity or to any other issue, CFEs in making such assessments at management’s request need to consider the experience, training, quality, and capabilities of the people performing the most critical controls.

You can have a well-designed control, but if the person in charge doesn’t know, or care, what to do, that control won’t operate. And whether such a lack of ability, or of concern, is at play is a judgment call that assessing CFEs shouldn’t be afraid to make. A negative characterization of an employee’s capability doesn’t mean that employee is a bad worker, of course. It may simply mean he or she is new to the job, or it may reveal training problems in that employee’s department. CFEs proactively involved in fraud risk assessment need to keep in mind that, in some instances, competence may be so low that it results in greater risk. Both the complexity of a control and the judgment required to operate it are important. The ability to interweave notions of good and bad judgment into the fabric of a company’s overall fraud risk comes from CFEs experience doing exactly that on fraud examinations. A critical employee’s intangibles like conscientiousness, commitment, ethics and morals, and honesty, all come into play and either contribute to a stronger fraud control environment or cause it to deteriorate. CFEs need to be able, while acting as professional risk assessors, to challenge to management the quality, integrity, and motivation of employees at all levels of the organization.

Many companies conduct fraud-specific tests as a component of the fraud prevention program, and many of the most common forms of fraud can be detected by basic controls already in place. Indeed, fraud is a common concern throughout all routine audits, as opposed to the conduct of separate fraud-only audits. It can be argued that every internal control is a fraud deterrent control. But fraud still exists.

What CFEs have to offer to the risk assessment of financial statement and other frauds is their overall proficiency in fraud detection and the reality that they are well-versed in, and cognizant of, the risk of fraud in every given business process of the company; they are, therefore, well positioned to apply their best professional judgment to the assessment of the degree of risk of financial statement misstatement that fraud represents in any given client enterprise.

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.

Trust but Check

The community support for a business, and business in general, depends on the credibility that stakeholders place in corporate commitments, the company’s reputation, and the strength of its competitive advantage. All of these depend on the trust that stakeholders place in a company’s activities. Trust, in turn, depends on the values underlying corporate activities. Off-shore accounts, manipulation of shell corporations to evade taxes, loan fraud and management self-dealing are just a few instances of the moral cancer that, drop by drop, erodes trust until the point where the free enterprise systems of democratic nations are replaced by naked oligarchy, kleptocracy and cultures of corruption.

If the interests of all stakeholders are systematically not respected, then action that continues to be often painful to shareholders, officers, and directors usually occurs. In fact, it is unlikely that businesses or professions can achieve their long-run strategic objectives without the support of key stakeholders, such as shareholders, employees, customers, creditors, suppliers, governments, and host communities.

A constant theme and trend (as echoed in the trade press) has become increasingly more evident since the turn of the century. The judgment and moral character of executives, owners, boards of directors, and auditors has been often insufficient, on their own, to prevent increasingly severe corporate, ethical, and governance scandals. Governments and regulators world-wide have been required to constantly tighten guidelines and governance regulations to assure the protection of the public. The self-interested lure of greed has proven to be too strong for many to resist, and they have succumbed to conflicts of interest when left too much on their own. Corporations that were once able to shift jurisdictions to avoid new regulations regarding tax and other matters now are facing global measures designed to expose and control questionable ethics and governance practices. Assurance professionals themselves, of all types, are also facing international standards of behavior.

These changes have come about because of the pressures brought to bear on corporations and management by the reporting of scandals and abuses by a still potent free press and by suits by activist investors and other involved stakeholders. But changes in laws, regulations, and standards are only part of what stakeholders have contributed. The expectations for good ethical behavior and good governance practices have changed. Failure to comply with these expectations now impacts reputations, profits, and careers even if the behavior is strictly within legal boundaries.

As ACFE training tells us, it’s become increasingly evident to most executives, owners, and auditors that their individual success is directly related to their ability to develop and maintain a corporate culture of integrity. They cannot afford the loss of reputation, revenue, reliability, and credibility as a result of a loss of integrity. It is no longer an effective, sustainable, or medium or long-term strategy to project or practice questionable ethics. ACFE training goes on to indicate a number of causes, or signs, of ethical problems within any given corporation:

— Pressure to meet goals, especially financial ones, at any cost;
–A culture that does not foster open and candid conversation and discussion;
–A CEO who is surrounded by people who will agree and flatter the CEO, as well as a CEO whose reputation is ‘beyond criticism’;
–Weak boards that do not exercise their fiduciary responsibilities with diligence;
–An organization that promotes people on the basis of nepotism and favoritism;
–Hubris. The arrogant belief that rules are for other people, but not for us;
–A flawed cost/benefit attitude that suggests that poor ethical behavior in one area can be offset by good ethical behavior in another area.

The LIBOR rate scandal of 2012 is an almost perfect example of ethical collapse and manifests a majority of the red flags enumerated above. The scandal featured the systematic manipulation of a benchmark interest rate, supported by a culture of fraud in the world’s biggest banks, in an environment where little or no regulation prevailed. After decades of abuse that enriched the big banks, their shareholders, executives and traders, at the expense of others, investigations and lawsuits were finally undertaken resulting in prosecutions and huge penalties for the banks and the individual traders involved.

The London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) rate is a rate of interest, first computed in 1985 by the British Banking Association (BBA), the Bank of England and others, to serve as a readily available reference or benchmark rate for many financial contracts and arrangements. Prior to its creation, contracts utilized many privately negotiated rates, which were difficult to verify, and not necessarily related to the market rate for the security in question. The LIBOR rate, which is the average interest rate estimated by leading banks that they would be charged if they were to borrow from other banks, provided a simple alternative that came to be widely used.

At the time of the LIBOR scandal, 18 of the largest banks in the world provided their estimates of the costs they would have had to pay for a variety of interbank loans (loans from other banks) just prior to 11:00 a.m. on the submission day. These estimates were submitted to Reuters news agency (who acted for the BBA) for calculation of the average, and its publication, and dissemination. Reuters set aside the four highest and four lowest estimates and averaged the remaining ten.

So huge were the investments affected that a small manipulation in the LIBOR rate could have a very significant impact on the profit of the banks and of the traders involved in the manipulation.

Insiders to the banking system knew about the manipulation of LIBOR rate submissions for decades, but changes were not made until the public became aware of the problem, and until the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) forced the U.K. government to act. The president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank (Fed), at that time emailed the governor of the Bank of England in June 2008, suggesting ways to “enhance” LIBOR. Although ensuing emails report agreement on the suggestions, and articles appeared in the trade press from 2008 to 2011, serious changes were not applied until October 2012 when the U.K. government accepted the recommendations of the Wheatley Review of Libor. This Review by Martin Wheatley, managing director of British Financial Services Authority, was commissioned in June 2012 in view of investigations, charges and settlements that were raising public awareness of LIBOR deficiencies.

One of the motivations for creating the Wheatley Review involved the prosecution of a former UBS and later Citigroup Inc. trader, on criminal fraud charges for manipulating the LIBOR rates. The trader, known to insiders as the “Rain Man” for his abilities and demeanor, allegedly sought his superiors approval before attempting to influence the LIBOR rates, an act that some observers thought at the time would provide a strong defense against conviction.

Insiders who knew of LIBOR manipulations were generally reluctant to take a public stand for earlier change. However, on July 27, 2012, a former trader for Morgan Stanley in London, published an article that told of his earlier attempts to bring LIBOR rate manipulations to the attention of authorities, but without success. In his article, he indicated how he learned as a new trader in 1991 that the banks manipulated their rate submissions to make profit on specific contracts, and to mask liquidity problems such as during the subprime lending crisis of 2008. For example, if the LIBOR rate submissions were misstated to be low, the discounted valuation of related assets would be raised, thus providing misleadingly higher levels of short-term, near-cash assets than should have been reported.

Numerous studies since the scandal have detailed the effects of unethical LIBOR manipulation. Just two examples of such manipulation. At the time of the scandal many home owners borrowed their mortgage loans on a variable- or adjustable-rate basis, rather than a fixed-rate basis. Consequently, many of these borrowers received a new rate at the first of every month based on the LIBOR rate. A study prepared for a class action lawsuit has shown that on the first of each month for the period 2007-2009, the LIBOR rate rose more than 7.5 basis points on average. As a consequence, one observer estimated that each LIBOR submitting bank may be liable for as much as $2.3 billion.

Municipalities raise funds through the issue of bonds, and many were encouraged to issue variable-rate, rather than fixed-rate, bonds to take advantage of lower interest payments. For example, the saving could be as much as $1 million on a $100 million bond. After issue, the municipalities were encouraged to buy interest rate swaps from their investment banks to hedge their risk of volatility in the variable rates by converting or swapping into a fixed rate arrangement. The seller of the swap agrees to pay the municipality for any requirement to pay interest at more than the fixed rate agreed if interest rates rise, but if interest rates fall the swap seller buys the bonds at the lower variable interest rate. However, the variable rate was linked to the LIBOR rate, which was artificially depressed, thus costing U.S. municipalities as much as $10 billion. Class action suits were eventually launched to recover these losses, which cost municipalities, hospitals, and other non-profits as much as $600 million a year.

At the end of the day, trust in each other and in our counter-parties is all we really have as economic actors; CFEs and forensic accountants thus have a vital role to play in investigating, documenting and assisting in the identification and possible prosecution of those, like the LIBOR manipulators, who knowingly collude in making the choice to violate that trust.

Loose Ends

A forensic accountant colleague of mine often refers to “loose-ends”. In his telling, loose-ends are elements of an investigation that get over-looked or insufficiently investigated which have the power to come back and bite an examiner with ill effect. That a small anomaly may be a sign of fraud is a fact that is no surprise to any seasoned investigator. Since fraud is typically hidden, the discovery of fraud usually is unlikely, at least at the beginning, to involve a huge revelation.

The typical audit does not presume that those the auditor examiners and the documents s/he reviews have something sinister about them. The overwhelming majority of audits are conducted in companies in which material fraud does not exist. However, the auditor maintains constant awareness that material fraud could be present.

Imagine a policewoman walking down a dark alley into which she knows a suspect has entered just before her. She doesn’t know where the suspect is, but as she walks down that alley, she is acutely aware of and attuned to her surroundings. Her senses are at their highest level. She knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that danger lurks nearby.

Fraud audits (and audits in general) aren’t like that. Fraud audits are more like walking through a busy mall and watching normal people go about their daily activities. In the back of the examiner’s mind, he knows that among all the shoppers are a few, a very few, shoplifters. They look just like everyone else. The examiner knows they are there because statistical studies and past experience have shown that they are, but he doesn’t know exactly where or who they are or when he will encounter them, if at all. If he were engaged to find them, he would have to design procedures to increase the likelihood of discovery without in any way annoying the substantial majority of honest shoppers in whose midst they swim.

A fraud risk assessment evaluates areas of potential fraud to determine whether the current control structure and environment are addressing fraud risk at a level that aligns with the organization’s risk appetite and risk tolerance. Therefore, it is important during the development and implementation of the risk management program to specifically address various fraud schemes to establish the correct levels of control.

It occurred to me a while back that a fraud risk assessment can of thought of as ignoring a loose-end if it fails to include sufficient consideration of the client organization’s ethical dimension. That the ethical dimension is not typically included as a matter of course in the routine fraud risk assessment constitutes, to my mind, a lost opportunity to conduct a fuller, and potentially, a more useful assessment. As part of their assessments, today’s practitioners can potentially use surveys, Control Self-Assessment sessions, focus groups, and workshops with employees to take the organization’s ethical temperature and determine its ethical baseline. Under this expanded model, the most successful fraud risk assessment would include small brainstorming sessions with the operational management of the business process(s) under review. Facilitated by a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE), these assessments would look at typical fraud schemes encountered in various areas of the organization and identify the internal controls designed to mitigate each of them. At a high level, this analysis examines internal controls and the internal control environment, as well as resources available to prevent, detect, and deter fraud.

Fraud risk assessments emphasize possible collusion and management overrides to circumvent internal controls. Although an internal control might be in place to prevent fraudulent activity, the analysis must consider how this control could be circumvented, manipulated, or avoided. This evaluation can help the CFE understand the actual robustness and resilience of the control and of the control environment and estimate the potential risk to the organization.

One challenge at this point in the process is ensuring that the analysis assesses not just roles, but also those specific individuals who are responsible for the controls. Sometimes employees will feel uncomfortable contemplating a fellow employee or manager perpetrating fraud. This is where an outside fraud expert like the CFE can help facilitate the discussion and ensure that nothing is left off the table. To ask and get the answers to the right questions, the CFE facilitator should help the respondents keep in mind that:

o Fraud entails intentional misconduct designed to avoid detection.
o Risk assessments identify where fraud might occur and who the potential perpetrator(s) might be.
o Persons inside and outside of the organization could perpetrate such schemes.
o Fraud perpetrators typically exploit weaknesses in the system of controls or may override or circumvent controls.
o Fraud perpetrators typically find ways to hide the fraud from detection.

It’s important to evaluate whether the organization’s culture promotes ethical or unethical decision-making. Unfortunately, many organizations have established policies and procedures to comply with various regulations and guidelines without committing to promoting a culture of ethical behavior. Simply having a code of conduct or an ethics policy is not enough. What matters is how employees act when confronted with an ethical choice; this is referred to by the ACFE as measuring the organization’s ethical baseline.

Organizations can determine their ethical baseline by periodically conducting either CFE moderated Control Self-Assessment sessions including employees from high-risk business processes, through an online survey of employees from various areas and levels within the organization, or through workshop-based surveys using a balloting tool that can keep responses anonymous. The broader the survey population, the more insightful the results will be. For optimal results, surveys should be short and direct, with no more than 15 to 20 questions that should only take a few minutes for most employees to answer. An important aspect of conducting this survey is ensuring the anonymity of participants, so that their answers are not influenced by peer pressure or fear of retaliation. The survey can ask respondents to rate questions or statements on a scale, ranging from 1—Strongly Disagree to 5—Strongly Agree. Sample statements might include:

1. Our organizational culture is trust-based.
2. Missing approvals are not a big deal here.
3. Strong personalities dominate most departments.
4. Pressure to perform outweighs ethical behavior.
5. I share my passwords with my co-workers.
6. Retaliation will not be accepted here.
7. The saying “Don’t rock the boat!” fits this organization.
8. I am encouraged to speak up whenever needed.
9. Ethical behavior is a top priority of management.
10.I know where I can go if I need to report a potential issue of misconduct.

The ethical baseline should not be totally measured on a point system, nor should the organization be graded based on the survey results. The results should simply be an indicator of the organization’s ethical environment and a tool to identify potential areas of concern. If repeated over time, the baseline can help identify both positive and negative trends. The results of the ethical baseline survey should be discussed by the CFE with management as part of a broader fraud risk assessment project. This is especially important if there are areas with a lack of consensus among the survey respondents. For example, if the answer to a question is split down the middle between strongly agree and strongly disagree, this should be discussed to identify the root cause of the variance. Most questions should be worded to either show strong ethical behaviors or to raise red flags of potential unethical issues or inability to report such issues promptly to the correct level in the organization.

In summary, the additional value created by combining of the results of the traditional fraud risk assessment with an ethical baseline assessment can help CFEs better determine areas of risk and control that should be considered in building the fraud prevention and response plans. For example, fraud risk schemes that are heavily dependent on controls that can be easily overridden by management may require more frequent assurance from prevention professionals than those schemes that are mitigated by system-based controls. And an organization with a weak ethical baseline may require more frequent assessment of detective control procedures than one with a strong ethical baseline, which might rely on broader entity-level controls. By adding ethical climate evaluation to their standard fraud risk assessment procedures, CFEs can tie up what otherwise might be a major loose-end in their risk evaluation.

A Ship of Fools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Ethical Toolbox

As CFE’s we know organizations that have clearly articulated values and a strong culture of ethical behavior tend to control fraud more effectively. They usually have well-established frameworks, principles, rules, standards, and policies that encompass the attributes of generally accepted fraud control. These attributes include leadership, an ethical framework, responsibility structures, a fraud control policy; prevention systems, fraud awareness, third-party management systems, notification systems, detection systems, and investigation systems.

CFE’s are increasingly being called upon to assist in the planning for an assessment of a client organization’s integrity and ethics safeguards and then as active members of the team performing the engagement. The increasing demand for such assessments has grown out of the increasing awareness that a strong ethical culture is a vital part of effective fraud prevention.  Conducting such targeted research within the client organization, within its industry; and its region will help determine the emerging risk areas and potential gaps in most organizational anti-fraud safeguards. Four key elements of integrity and ethics safeguards have emerged over the past few years.  These are the fraud control plan, handling conflicts of interest, shaping ethical dealings with third parties, and natural justice principles for employees facing allegations of wrongdoing.

The need for a fraud control plan is borne out by an organization’s potential fraud losses; typically, about five percent of revenues are lost to fraud each year, according to the ACFE’s 2016 Report to the Nations on Occupational Fraud and Abuse. A fraud control plan typically will articulate an organization’s fraud risks, controls, and mitigation strategies, including:

–Significant business activities;
–Potential areas of fraud risk;
–Related fraud controls;
–Gaps in control coverage and assurance activities;
–Defined remedial actions to minimize fraud risks;
–Review mechanisms evaluating the effectiveness of fraud control strategies.

Management should review and update the fraud control plan periodically and report the results to the audit committee and senior management. Thus, the role of the board and of the audit committee of the board are vital for the implementation of any ethically based fraud control plan. The chairman of the board is, or should be, the chief advocate for the shareholders, and completely independent of management. It is the chairman’s primary job to direct the company’s executives and drive oversight of their activities in the name of the shareholders. An independent and highly skilled audit committee chairman is essential to maintain a robust system of checks and balances over all operations. To be truly effective, the chairman must be independent of those he or she is charged with watching.  The chairmen of the board and the audit committee must devote material time to their duties. While the board can use the company’s oversight functions to maintain a checks and balances process, there is no substitute for personal, direct involvement. The board must be willing to direct inquiries into allegations of misconduct, and have unquestioned confidential spending authority to conduct reviews and investigations as it deems necessary.

One of the most effective compliance tools available to the board is the day-to-day vigilance of the company’s employees. When an individual employee detects wrongdoing, he or she must have an effective and safe method to report observations, such as a third-party ethics hotline that reports to the chairman of the board and audit committee. All employees must be protected from retribution to avoid any possibility of corrupting the process.

A zero-based budgeting process, requiring that the individual elements of the company’s budget be built from the bottom up, reviewed in detail, and justified, can identify unusual spending in numerous corporate and operating units. This provides an in-depth view of spending as opposed to basing the current year’s spending, in aggregate, on last year’s spending, where irregularities may be buried and overlooked.

In organizations with an internal audit division the overall review would typically be performed by Director of Internal Audit (CAE) whom the CFE and other specialists would support. This review should be integrated into the organization’s wider business planning to ensure synergies exist with other business processes, and should link to the organization-wide risk assessment and to other anti-fraud processes.

The ACFE tells us that there is a growing consensus that managing conflicts of interest is critical to curbing corruption. Reports indicate that unmanaged conflicts of interest continue to cost organizations millions of dollars. To minimize these risks, organizations need a clear and well-understood conflict of interest policy, coupled with practical arrangements to implement and monitor policy requirements. Stated simply, a conflict of interest occurs when the independent judgment of a person is swayed, or might be swayed, from making decisions in the best interest of others who are relying on that judgment. An executive or employee is expected to make judgments in the best interest of the company. A director is legally expected to make judgments in the best interest of the company and of its shareholders, and to do so strategically so that no harm and perhaps some benefit will come to other stakeholders and to the public interest. A professional accountant is expected to make judgments that are in the public interest. Decision makers usually have a priority of duties that they are expected to fulfill, and a conflict of interests confuses and distracts the decision maker from that duty, resulting in harm to those legitimate expectations that are not fulfilled. Sometimes the term apparent conflict of interest is used, but it is a misnomer because it refers to a situation where no conflict of interest exists, although because of lack of information someone other than the decision maker would be justified in concluding (however tentatively) that the decision maker does have one

A special or conflicting interest could include any interest, loyalty, concern, emotion, or other feature of a situation tending to make the decision maker’s judgment (in that situation) less reliable than it would normally be, without rendering the decision maker incompetent. Commercial interests and family connections are the most common sources of conflict of interest, but love, prior statements, gratitude, and other subjective tugs on judgment can also constitute interest in this sense.

The perception of competing interests, impaired judgment, or undue influence also can be a conflict of interest. Good practices for managing conflicts of interest involve both prevention and detection, such as:

–Promoting ethical standards through a documented, explicit conflict of interest policy as well as well-stated values and clear conflicts provisions in the code of ethics;
–Identifying, understanding, and managing conflicts of interest through open and transparent communication to ensure that decision-making is efficient, transparent, and fair, and that everyone is aware of what to do if they suspect a conflict;
–Informing third parties of their responsibilities and the consequences of noncompliance through a statement of business ethics and formal contractual requirements;
–Ensuring transparency through well-established arrangements for declaring and registering gifts and other benefits;
–Ensuring that decisions are made independently, with evidence that staff and contractors routinely declare all actual, potential, and perceived conflicts of interests, involving at-risk areas such as procurement, management of contracts, human resources, decision-making, and governmental policy advice;
–Establishing management, internal controls, and independent oversight to detect breaches of policy and to respond appropriately to noncompliance.

Contemporary business models increasingly involve third parties, with external supplier costs now representing one of the most significant lines of expenditure for many organizations. Such interactions can provide an opportunity for fraud and corruption. An enterprise’s strong commitment to ethical values needs to be communicated to suppliers through a Statement of Business Ethics. Many forward-thinking organizations already have codes of ethics in place that set out the values and ethical expectations of both their board members and staff. The board code of conduct should define the behavioral standards for members, while the staff code of conduct should detail standards for employee conduct and the sanctions that apply for wrongdoing. Similar statements also are appropriate for third parties such as suppliers, service providers, and business partners.

A statement of business ethics outlines both acceptable and unacceptable practices in third-party dealings with an organization. Common features include:

–The CEO’s statement on the organization’s commitment to operating ethically;
–The organization’s values and business principles;
–What third parties can expect in their dealings with the organization and the behaviors expected of them;
–Guidance related to bribery, gifts, benefits, hospitality, travel, and accommodation; conflicts of interest; confidentiality and privacy of information; ethical communications; secondary employment; and other expectations.
–Contact information for concerns, clarification, reporting of wrongdoing, and disputes.

Once established, the organization needs to implement a well-rounded communication strategy for the statement of business ethics that includes education of staff members, distribution to third parties, publication on the organization’s website, references to it in the annual report, and inclusion in future tender proposals and bid packs.

Engaged and capable employees underpin the success of most organizations, yet management does not always recognize the bottom-line effects and employee turnover costs when innocent employees are the subject of allegations of fraud and other wrongdoing. About 60 percent of allegations against employees turn out to be unsubstantiated, according to the ACFE. A charter of rights compiles in a single document all the information that respondents to allegations of wrongdoing may require. Such a charter should be written in an easy-to-understand style to meet the needs of its target audience. It should:

–Outline the charter’s purpose, how it will operate, how it supports a robust complaints and allegations system, and how it aligns with the organization’s values;
–Describe how management handles workplace allegations and complaints, and ensure principles of natural justice and other legislative obligations, such as privacy, are in place;
–Provide a high-level overview diagram of the allegation assessment and investigation process, including the channels for submitting allegations; the distinct phases for logging, assessing, and investigating the allegations; and the final decision-making phase;
–Include details of available support such as contact information for human resource specialists, details about an external confidential employee help line, and processes for updates throughout the investigation;
–Illustrate the tiered escalation process for handling allegations that reflects (at one end) how issues of a serious, sensitive, or significant nature are addressed, and encourages (at the other end) the handling of low level localized issues as close to the source as possible;
–Provide answers to frequent questions that respondents might have about the process for dealing with allegations, such as “What can I expect?” “Are outcomes always reviewable?” “What does frivolous and vexatious mean?” “What will I be told about the outcome?” and “What happens when a process is concluded?”;
–Outline the options for independent reviews of adverse investigation outcomes.

For Appearance Sake

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

Last Thursday, the 15th of June 2017, the New York State Senate Committee on Ethics and Internal Governance met. The previous sentence reads like a big yawn with which no one, beyond perhaps the members of the committee itself, would be concerned. However, this meeting was big news. The room was packed with members of the media and every member of the committee was in attendance. Why? Because this was the first meeting the committee had empaneled since 2009, as confirmed by the committee’s published archive of events. It turns out that it was indeed a big deal that all committee members were in attendance because, for eight years straight, none of the committee members had attended a single meeting.

If you are thinking that the ethics committee did not meet for eight years because there were no ethical issues to discuss and our state’s legislative leadership practiced only ethical and upright behavior, you would be sorely mistaken. John Sampson, the State Senator who chaired the committee at that last meeting in 2009 was found guilty, of obstruction of justice and of lying to federal agents in 2015 and sentenced to jail time in January 2017. Evidently, taking their cues from the tone at the top evidenced by the leadership of their ethics committee, during the same eight-year meeting hiatus, seven other state senators were convicted on charges that included mail fraud, looting a nonprofit and bribery.

So, you might ask, what happened at the meeting last week? The committee had come together to discuss stipends, that are supposed to go to committee chairs, that were apparently also being paid to committee vice-chairs (and, in one case, to a deputy vice-chair, whatever that is). There was a motion proposed to stop making these payments to anyone but the committee chair. It seems that just coming together was more than enough work for the committee and, therefore, they tabled the motion, a motion that would not even have been binding, until its next meeting. It should be noted that two of the senators receiving this chair stipend, as vice-chairs, serve on the ethics committee and both voted to postpone voting on the motion. It would be laughable if it were a laughing matter.

Think about where you work and about all the clients with whom we work, as fraud examiners and forensic accountants. We work with our clients and with those who employ us to suggest comprehensive policies that cover good business practices and ethical behaviors and actions. Reading about the shenanigans of the State Senate Committee on Ethics recalled several thoughts:

The assumption that personnel will automatically be motivated to behave as corporate owners want is no longer valid. People are motivated more by self-interest than in the past and are likely to come from backgrounds that emphasize different priorities of duty. As a result, there is greater need than ever for clear guidance and for identifying and effectively managing threats to good governance and accountability.

Even when different employee backgrounds are not an issue, personnel can misunderstand the organization’s objectives and their own role and fiduciary duty. For example, many directors and employees at Enron evidently believed that the company’s objectives were best served by actions that brought short term profit:

—through ethical dishonesty, manipulation of energy markets or sham displays of trading floors;
—through book keeping that was illusory;
—through actions that benefited themselves at the expense of other stakeholders.

Frequently, employees are tempted to cut ethical corners, and they have done so because they believed that their top management wanted them to; they were ordered to do so; or they were encouraged to do so by misguided or manipulative incentive programs. These actions occurred although the board of directors would have preferred (sometimes with hindsight) that they had not. Personnel simply misunderstood what was expected by the board because guidance was unclear or they were led astray and did not understand that they were to report the problem for appropriate corrective action, or to whom or how.

Among our clients, lack of proper guidance or reporting mechanisms may have been the result of directors and others not understanding their duties as fiduciaries. Directors owe shareholders and regulators several duties, including obedience, loyalty, and due care. Recognition of the increasing complexity, volatility and risk inherent in modern corporate interests and operations, particularly as their scope expands to diverse groups and cultures has led to the requirement for risk identification, assessment and management systems.

  • If our client businesses want to do an excellent job at implementing effective ethics programs, orientation of new employees should always involve a review of the code of ethical practice by the staff tasked with compliance and with enforcing policies. How many entities are actively practicing what they preach during such sessions? The values that a company’s directors wish to instill to motivate the beliefs and actions of its personnel need to be conveyed to provide the required guidance. Usually, such guidance takes the form of a code of conduct that states the values selected, the principles that flow from those values, and any rules that are to be followed to ensure that appropriate values are respected.
  • After orientation, what steps are companies taking to maintain their ethics programs on an on-going basis? Principles are more useful to employees than just rules because principles facilitate interpretation when the precise circumstances encountered do not exactly fit the rules prescribed. A blend of principles and rules is often optimal in maintaining of a code of conduct in the long term.
  • Is leadership periodically coming together to talk about where their firm stands when it comes to ethics and compliance? A code on its own may be nothing more than ‘ethical art’ that hangs on the wall but is rarely studied or followed. Experience has revealed that, to be effective, a code must be reinforced by a comprehensive ethical culture.
  • Is anyone reviewing how whistleblowing claims are being dealt with? Does the company even have a whistleblower program? If so, does the staff even know about it and how it works? Whistle-blowers are part of a needed monitoring, risk management and remediation system.
  • Is leadership setting a positive tone at the top and displaying the behaviors that it is demanding from employees? The ethical behavior expected must be referred to in speeches and newsletters by top management as often as they refer to their health and safety programs, or to their antipollution program or else it will be viewed as less important by employees. If personnel never or rarely hear about ethical expectations, they will perceive them as not a serious priority.

Once, I worked at a company where senior management smoked in the office; behavior that is illegal and was, on paper, not allowed. When staff members complained to human resources, no corrective action was taken. Frustrated, some staff members called the city hotline to file a report. Following visits from the city, human resources put up no smoking signs and then notices encouraging employees to keep reports of inappropriate staff smoking internal. By only paying lip service to policy, this company’s management seemed populated by future candidates for the State’s Senate Ethics Committee. But my former employer doesn’t stand alone as evidenced by frauds at Wells Fargo and at others. A company can pull out screeds of rules and regulations, but what matters most is what the staff knows and what the leadership does.

In the case of the New York State Senate Committee on Ethics and Internal Governance, what it did was delay a vote on the issues before it until the next meeting. And when will the next meeting be? After taking eight years to set up its last meeting, the committee was in no hurry to set a date for the next. They adjourned without scheduling the next one. They did, however, take a moment to congratulate themselves on attending this meeting. You can’t forget the important stuff.

Tone Deaf

tone-deafThe sensational bribery and corruption cases all over the news recently mean that tone at the top as a concept is yet again in the eye of the financial press.   Journalists of every stripe and persuasion opine on its importance as a vital control but always seem to fall short on the specifics of just how the notion can be practically applied and its strength evaluated once implemented.  One of the problems is that there are so many facile definitions of the concept in popular use.  The one I like the most is one of the simplest declaring it to be the message, the attitude and the ethical culture the board of directors and upper management disseminate throughout the organization. It’s best described as the consistency among statements, assertions and explanations of the management and its actions. In summary, tone at the top is seen by some as a part of and by others as equal to the internal control environment.

The rub comes in because tone at the top is not only far more complicated than the above definition would lead a casual reader of trade press articles to believe, but also because its invisible to the standard tests of an outside auditor or fraud examiner. So a baseline would be a valuable addition not only for fraud examiners and financial auditors, but also for all types of assurance professionals.

To determine a baseline, one first needs to define the different aspects of the target concept. Thus, a baseline might provide reviewers with a starting point to begin improving their analyses of tone at the top. ACFE studies of hundreds of companies tell us that an enriched tone at the top can not only prevent fraud through its implementation of a well-functioning internal control system, but can also have a positive impact on the financial results of an organization. Organizations with an effective corporate governance policy just perform better than those that don’t. In my own practice as an auditor and fraud examiner, I’ve found COSO’s Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) a useful framework to use in the actual practice of evaluating the effectiveness of internal controls (including tone at the top) during fraud risk assessments.

Tone at the top is based on two schools of thought in management literature: the corporate governance school and the management control systems (MCS) school. These schools of thought share three fundamental theories: the agency theory, the transaction cost economics theory and the stakeholder theory. The agency theory views an organization as a nexus of contracts. Separation of ownership and control is essential for this theory.  The agent (the manager) is in control of the organization; however, he or she does not own the organization; the organization is owned by the principal (stakeholders).  Measures (i.e., corporate governance) need to be taken to ensure that the agent will strive to achieve the goals of the principal.

Transaction cost economics (TCE) is based on the concepts of bounded rationality and of homo economicus: a person chooses the best option based on the available information.  TCF aims to explain how firms are formed.  Firms are created to minimize transaction costs.  The domain of TCE has proven useful to explain management control structures.  The performance evaluation needs to be behavioral based, with non-financial subjective measures.  Output controls are low with TCE.  Individual contributions to the organization (individual performance) are analyzed as the outcomes of contracts between the employer and the employee.

The stakeholder theory is based on the belief that besides shareholders, there are others with interest in the organization.  Corporate governance should not only solve conflicts between management and shareholders but also between the organization and other stakeholders.  Tone at the top represents a form of cultural control to the MCS school.  Cultural controls stimulate employees to monitor and stimulate each other’s behavior.  Cultural controls rely on group pressure; if a person deviates from the group’s values, the group will put the person under pressure to convert him or her back to the dominant values.  Cultural controls are usually translated in corporate governance codes.  Corporate governance codes are mainly formulated to prevent/minimize fraudulent activities in organizations by means of internal control.  Five methods of cultural controls, namely code of conduct, group rewards, transfers, physical and social controls, and tone at the top have been identified.

Tone at the top forms an important part of corporate governance codes.  Management behavior should coincide with the culture it tries to form; managers fulfill an example function. An important factor is implementing and operating a whistleblower policy; if staff at any level observes fraudulent activities they can report them and be protected against possible retaliation.

Each of our above theories concludes that an organization needs to have a corporate governance code to minimize transaction cost, manage stakeholder interest and, thereby, increase shareholder value.  However, recent well publicized corruption cases have led to calls in the popular press for a more formal approach.  So, what might such a formal, COSO based, approach look like?

First, management and the CEO need to demonstrate inspiring leadership, set the right ethical example and focus on people skills. They also need to display integrity.  Their risk awareness, actions and messages need to coincide with the dominant culture.  It is also important for managements to formally commit to competence.

As to culture, an independent and active risk culture is necessary for tone at the top to be successful.  Also, employees need to be empowered to make the right decisions.  The reward systems and the culture need to reward desired behavior and be compliant with the norms.  In the event of something going wrong despite these cultural aspects, there needs to be an effective policy present to protect whistleblowers.

Finally, the risk appetite should be linked to the strategy.  The supervisory board needs to be independent, active and involved.  Responsibilities need to be defined, and management needs to receive adequate information.

All three of the above aspects are an integral part of what the experts currently define as tone at the top.  According to the ACFE, tone at the top can assist in averting fraud throughout every level of an organization. It’s, therefore, necessary to include its assessment in the scope of the fraud examiners fraud risk assessment and to formally schedule its periodic re-evaluation.

Singing into the Hurricane

StormCloudsDuring the last few weeks, when I can find the time, I’ve been reading chapters of former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s recent book on the financial crisis. It’s a sobering experience.  What’s most striking to me as a fraud examiner and auditor is how apparently flawed the corporate cultures of the banking and insurance firms involved in the crisis were. But tone at the top and culture weren’t problems for banks and insurance companies alone, as the book makes clear. Time and again, boards across America apparently decided what the tone in their organizations should be, but seemed to fail to communicate it to people lower down the chain. Perhaps their audience didn’t understand the message. Perhaps staff members just decided to ignore it. Other times the message was completely clear, and adhered to by everyone, just completely wrong ethically, and that individual business, along with so many others, simply sailed ahead on a fixed collision course with the whirlwind.

The Chairman makes clear that the challenge is not only to set the right tone at the top, but also to ensure that it’s in harmony with what he calls the ‘tune in the middle’ – the unwritten real world rules that describe how people further down the organization should behave and work. For a business to thrive – or to simply survive – everyone in the organization needs to sing from the same piece of ethical sheet music.  On page after page of Bernanke’s  book, as the unfolding of the crisis was described, it occurred to me again and again that there’s a lot CFE’s and other control assurance professionals can do to assist our clients to fore-stall the risk of any future, similar crisis.

I think the first time I saw the term ‘tone at the top’ was in a 1987 report on fraudulent financial reporting from the Treadway Commission, which paved the way for the commission’s Committee of Sponsoring Organizations’ (COSO’s) Internal Control-Integrated Framework.  As I recall the framework said, and still says, the CEO has to take ownership of the organization’s control system. Part of the CEO’s responsibility is to set a tone at the top that will enable a positive control environment. That includes providing direction to senior managers and checking how they’re controlling the business. Senior managers, in turn, assign responsibility for more specific internal control policies and procedures to their subordinates. The idea is that the right tone will cascade all the way down through the organization, from top to bottom. But the CEO isn’t the only person responsible for setting the tone. COSO says the full board and audit committee (if there is one) have an important role, as well.  Eventually, further COSO guidance, published for small public companies, fleshed out what a good tone at the top might sound like. And in its most recent guidance on monitoring controls, COSO puts even more emphasis on tone at the top. All COSO publications stress the importance of establishing a culture in which managers are aware of the risks in their part of the business, monitor the controls designed to mitigate them, and take action if those controls aren’t working.

There’s no shortage of guidance on what a good tone at the top should look and sound like, yet this remains, for Bernanke, an issue that many organizations, to this day, still get badly wrong. The banking and insurance sectors are just one example. Official reports like the Chairman’s into the causes of the credit crunch, and such as the one published years ago by the Financial Stability Forum, a group of central bankers, criticize banks for their poor risk management, and point to organizational cultures that failed to recognize the importance of risk management and internal control functions. Many of the banks that failed literally “disempowered” their risk functions.

A lack of support for the value of risk and control functions wasn’t the only indicator that tone at the top in the financial industry had gone generally awry. Another significant one is the controversy over executive pay in the sector. According to Bernanke, the size of bankers’ pay awards and bonuses, the apparent failure to link rewards to performance, and the refusal to forgo or repay bonuses led to the current global political drive to reintroduce a degree of control over pay. Directors’ pay is the litmus test of tone at the top, because pay is the most significant issue over which the interests of shareholders can directly conflict with those of boards of directors. The former want pay levels set in the company’s best long-term interests, while the directors must fight the temptation to line their pockets with short term rewards. Any company with a chief executive who has pay that is considered offensive by colleagues, owners, or the wider society has failed that fundamental test.

And the nature of the financial crisis, according to the Chairman, also tells us something else generally about tone at the top in the financial services industry. While the rocket scientists inside banks and insurance companies were inventing increasingly complicated financial products, their boards failed to ask the intellectually naive but important questions that might have told them that trouble was brewing.  These would have been simple questions, such as “Do housing prices always go up?” and “Can we always trust the opinions of rating agencies?” In failing to ask such questions, boards set a tone of what Bernanke styles “mindless compliance” – and it’s this tone that cascaded down the organization. That meant that the tune in the middle was not right. Middle managers weren’t applying their minds, only singing into the storm. For banks, this failure of middle management’s tune was as damaging as the poor board-level tone. Clearly, culture isn’t just a question of what board directors say and do; there are leaders throughout every part of the organization.  They range from heads of departments, business unit directors, and project team managers, to shop floor supervisors and shift leaders. Every one of them sets an example, for good or bad. Wherever there is someone in a leadership role, there is an opportunity for a gap to emerge between the stated aspirations of the board and what actually happens.

Tone at the top is often categorized as an issue of business ethics (we’ve repeatedly so categorized it in this blog), but the example of the banking and insurance industries during the crisis, demonstrates that it’s clearly about more than just that. Ethics are universal, applying to all companies; don’t steal, act honestly, and don’t mislead the board. Tone at the top includes how the company should relate to all of its stakeholders, such as its employees, shareholders, suppliers, customers, and the wider community.  So tone at the top symbolizes what the leadership of the business believes the ethical priorities are for that business at this point in time. It’s a question of how senior people expect the organization to be run and organized. That would include the kind of ethical conduct that Bernanke describes, but also the reputational risk appetite associated with every individual project and product sale.

To my mind, Ben Bernanke’s book is the very best on the financial crisis for financially literate readers.  I whole-heartedly recommend it as must reading for all practicing fraud prevention and control assurance professionals.