Tag Archives: testifying as an expert witness

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!

Not for Sale

expert-witness_2by Rumbi Petrozzello
2016 Vice President – Central Virginia ACFE Chapter

As soon as John Turturro flashed onto the screen, in an ad for the HBO limited series “The Night Of”, I knew that we would be watching the show, even if it turned out to be an eight hour ad for dish detergent. My husband is a huge John Turturro fan, and misses nothing in which the actor appears. Fortunately, “The Night Of” turned out to be a very engaging crime procedural that had us hooked from the first episode.  The show was great in that it got us thinking about the criminal justice system. They even had a CPA who was not a stereotype – where you start feeling sleepy just at the sight of him – and he even came with a few surprises too. What really caught my attention on “The Night Of”, however, was not the portrayal of the CPA but of the expert witnesses.

During the investigation, the prosecutor deals with two forensic experts she expects to put on the stand during the trial. In both cases, she speaks with them to find out if the evidence that they have analyzed will help her convict the accused, Nazir Khan, of murder. In one case, she speaks with the medical examiner about how the suspect injured his hand. She then not only suggests a scenario (that works in her favor) which is different from his analysis but also coaches him until he sounds convincing. She also consults an expert about the possible effects of certain drugs and, again, pushes for an opinion that will help her case. In both instances, the experts seem to have no problem changing their narratives to suit the prosecutor, their client.

I was both horrified and disappointed by the ease with which this happened. When I scoured various recaps of the episodes, the critics either skipped over those moments on the show or wrote about them as though they were just par for the course when dealing with expert witnesses. Even when I read articles about the show that consulted and interviewed legal experts, the conversation was centered mainly around the lawyers’ behavior in the court room and on life in prison. Not a single legal expert (all lawyers in the pieces that I read) discussed what actually happens in their reality with expert witnesses.

It’s sad that the defense didn’t appear to make any great attempt at challenging the prosecution experts. They did put forth their own witness who, when testifying, did spend time putting forth information that seemed based on science, and not feelings. I was actually surprised that the defense, with its very limited budget, was able to hire their own expert, who came with a very impressive resume that was highlighted when he took the stand. The casual attitude that critics and reviewers have taken, when writing about these experts, hints at how many view the expert witness as a hired gun or shill, out to say whatever their client wants, not as an objective professional, advocating for the truth and, as such, a potentially critical component of the trail process.

When attending continuing education session on being an expert witness, the question invariably comes up – how do I make sure that I am taken seriously as a neutral witness and not simply as someone giving an opinion for pay? There are several steps that you, and the lawyer that you are working with, can take to clarify your position as a credible expert.

  • Money, money, money! It’ss very important to make it clear that you are being paid for your time and not your testimony. Your fee should be based on the time that you spend on the case and should never be a fee contingent on the outcome of the case. Let the judge and jury know that you will be paid, regardless on how the case turns out.
  • In order to maintain credibility and also avoid a possible Daubert motion (raised before or during trial, to exclude the presentation of unqualified evidence to the jury), your work should be based solely on the “reliable application” of “reliable principles and methods”.
  • Of course, you should be able to take the judge and jury through the steps of your investigation, from start to finish. They should be able to see and understand clearly how you came to the conclusions that you have reached.
  • Are you qualified to give the opinions you are giving? Share your qualifications and experience, so that people know that you have received all the relevant training required to support your investigation as well as the conclusions and the facts on which you are opining. Professional credentials, such as the CFE, CFF and CPA, are all viewed with respect, the possession of any of which goes a long way to support your being viewed as a qualified expert.
  • Know your work. When you’re on the stand, be sure that you know the relevant subject matter and all the issues you are testifying about backwards and forwards so that you won’t ever be caught slack-jawed, unable to answer some important question about your work.

It’s a lamentable fact that the current general view of the expert witness, as portrayed on television and in the movies, is that of someone who will say whatever the client pays them to say and that the experts who base their work on facts are viewed as the rare heroes. Taking the steps to establish ourselves as credible and objective will go a long way to building a positive view of all expert witnesses. That and, perhaps, getting a few friends in the film business!

The Expert & the Internet

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

Experts, in general, are brought in when required by law, as in malpractice suits where a member of a profession, say a physician, has to explain the infraction against professional by-laws or principles; where key points are deemed sufficiently technical or complex, like “cooking-the-books” schemes involving intricate accounting manipulations; or for assisting (some would say, for swaying) the jury in making its final decision.  Federal Rule of Evidence 702 tells us that an expert witness with appropriate knowledge and credentials may testify in any proceeding where scientific, technical, or specialized knowledge will shed light on the dispute.  Even in cases that don’t go to trial, experts may still be involved in mediation, arbitration, settlement conferences, or summary judgment motions. Experts contribute value to the trial process in a myriad of ways. They provide background information to guide and frame a case; during discovery they investigate, run tests, advise on depositions, prepare other witnesses, make exhibits, and respond to the opposition’s discovery requests; they file written opinions, which are entered as evidence into the court record; and they testify in actual proceedings should the case actually make it to a courtroom.

Once they accept a case, many experts immediately begin utilizing on and off-line tools to start the process of assembling a narrative version of the events. This detailed summary of the facts of the case serves as the raw material for rendering an official opinion. It’s important that the narrative text be written with care and professionalism. The text may (and probably will) have to be produced during discovery. Additionally, a well-written narrative helps the client attorney in preparing and executing the case at trial.  As our speaker, Liseli Pennings, pointed out, perhaps the thorniest challenge for CFEs, once they’re engaged to work on a case, is setting a value on business losses due to fraud. Even though financially related information available on the internet and elsewhere can be of great value in estimating the loss, there may be several methods appropriate for evaluating net worth/net loss appropriate to a given case, each rendering a different number at the end. And regardless of the numbers, there’s always the human element.

Article V. of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners Code of Professional Ethics states:

A fraud examiner, in conducting examinations, will obtain evidence or other documentation to establish a reasonable basis for any opinion rendered.  No opinion shall be expressed regarding the guilt or innocence of any person or party.

The rule that prohibits opinions regarding the guilt or innocence of any person or party is a rule of prudence. Clearly, it’s prudent for a Certified Fraud Examiner to refrain from usurping the role of the jury. In a courtroom, no good attorney would ask a Certified Fraud Examiner for such a conclusion, and no alert judge would allow such testimony. The fraud examiner’s job is to present the evidence in his report. Such evidence might constitute a convincing case pointing to the guilt or innocence of a person. But a clear line should be drawn between a report that essentially says “Here is the evidence” and one that steps over the line and says “He is the guilty (innocent) person.”  Nevertheless, there is a fine line between recommending action – forwarding the evidence to a law enforcement agency or filing a complaint or lawsuit – and giving an opinion on guilt or innocence. Certified Fraud Examiners may make such recommendations because they think the evidence is strong enough to support a case. They might even have a conclusion about whether the suspect committed a crime. The rule does not prohibit the Certified Fraud Examiner, under the proper circumstances, from accusing the person under investigation. However, the ultimate decision of whether a person is “guilty” or “innocent” is for a jury to determine. The CFE is free to report the facts and the conclusions that can be drawn from those facts, but the decision as to whether or not a person is guilty of a crime is a decision for the judge or jury.

As Liseli pointed out caution as to information reliability is the by-word for every use of internet based information in general and use by expert witnesses is no exception. According to discovery rules governing expert testimony, everything the expert says or writes about the case after being hired is subject to discovery by opposing counsel. That means everything: internet downloads, narrative versions of the case, comments to the press or law enforcement, hypothetical reconstructions, even notes can be demanded and used by the opposing party.  However, CFE’s acting as expert witnesses need to be aware of the consulting expert exception.

Experts may consult on the attorney’s work product, i.e., materials the attorney prepares as background for a case. While performing background work, the expert is said to be working as an associate of the attorney, so the exchange is protected…they are two professionals conferring. However, once the expert is hired as a witness, and begins entering opinions as part of the attorney’s case, there is no privilege for any contribution the expert makes. The distinction is something like this: when acting as “witnesses,” experts are bringing official information to the court, and so must disclose any contact with the case; when experts act as “consultants” or “associates” for attorneys or law enforcement, they are only assisting the attorney, and do not have to disclose their involvement in the case.

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

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