Category Archives: Client Relations

Tailoring Difficult Conversations

We CFE’s and forensic accountants, like other investigative professionals, are often called upon to be the bearers of bad news; it just goes with the territory.  CFE’s and forensic accountants are somewhat unique, however, in that, since fraud is ubiquitous, we’re called upon to communicate negative messages to such a diverse range of client types; today the chairman of an audit committee, tomorrow a corporate counsel, the day after that an estranged wife whose spouse has run off after looting the family business.

If there is anything worse than getting bad news, it may be delivering it. No one relishes the awkward, difficult, anxiety-producing exercise of relaying messages that may hurt, humiliate, or upset someone with whom the deliverer has a professional relationship. And, what’s more,  it often proves a thankless task. This was recognized in a Greek proverb almost 2,500 years ago, “Nobody loves the messenger who brings bad news.”

Physicians, who are sometimes required to deliver worse news than most CFE’s ever will, often engage in many hours of classwork and practical experience studying and role-playing how to have difficult conversations with patients and their families They know that the message itself, may be devastating but how they deliver it can help the patient and his or her family begin to process even the most painful facts.   CFE’s are in the fortunate position of typically not having to deliver news that is quite so shattering.  Nevertheless, there is no question that certain investigative results can be extremely difficult to convey and to receive.  The ACFE tells us that learning how to prepare for and deliver such messages can create not only a a better investigator but facilitate a better investigative outcome.

Preparation to deliver difficult investigative results should begin well in advance, even before there is such a result to deliver. If the first time an investigator has a genuine interaction with the client is to confirm the existence of a fraud, that fact in itself constitutes a problem.  On the other hand, if the investigator has invested time in building a relationship before that difficult meeting takes place, the intent and motivations of both parties to the interaction are much better mutually understood. Continuous communication via weekly updates to clients from the moment irregularities are noted by examination is vital.

However, despite best efforts in building relationships and staying in regular contact with clients, some meetings will involve conveying difficult news. In those cases, preparation is critical to accomplishing objectives while dealing with any resultant fallout.  In such cases, the ACFE recommends focusing on investigative process as well as on content. Process is professionally performing the work, self-preparation for delivering the message, explaining the conclusions in meaningful and realistic ways, and for anticipating the consequences and possible response of the person receiving the message. Content is having the right data and valid conclusions so  the message is correct and complete.

Self-preparation involves considering the type of person who is receiving the difficult message and in determining the best approach for communicating it. Some people want to hear the bottom line first and the supporting information after that; others want to see a methodical building of the case item by item, with the conclusion at the end. Some are best appealed to via logic; others need a more empathetic delivery. Discussions guided by the appropriate approach are more likely to be productive. Put as much effort as possible into getting to know your client since personality tends to drive how he or she wants to receive information, interact with others, and, in turn, values things and people. When there is critical investigative information that has to be understood and accepted, seasoned examiners consider delivery tailored specifically to the client to be paramount.

Once the ground work has been laid, it’s time to have the discussion. It’s important, regarding the identified fraud, to remember to …

–Seek opportunities to balance the discussion by recognizing the client’s processes that are working well as well as those that have apparently failed;

–Offer to help or ask how you can help to address the specific issues raised in the discussion;

–Make it clear that you understand the client’s challenges. Be precise and factual in describing the causes of the identified irregularity;

–Maintain open body language. Avoid crossing your arms, don’t place your hands over your mouth or on your face, and keep your palms facing each other or slightly upwards instead of downwards. Don’t lean forward as this appears extra aggressive. Breathe deeply and evenly. If possible, mimic the body language of the message recipient, if the recipient is remaining calm. If the recipient begins to show signs of defensiveness or strong aggression, and your efforts to calm  the situation are not successful, you might suggest a follow-up meeting after both of you have digested what was said and to consider mutually acceptable options to move forward.

–Present the bottom-line message three times in different ways so your listener has time to absorb it.

–Let the client vent if he or she wishes. The ACFE warns against a tendency to interrupt the client’s remarks of explanation or sometimes of denial; “we don’t hire people who would do something like that!” Allowing the client time to vent frees him or her to get down to business moving afterward.

–Focus on problems with the process as well as on the actions of the suspect(s) to build context for the fraud scenario.

–Always demonstrate empathy. Take time to think about what’s going through your hearer’s mind and help him or her think through the alleged scenario and how it occurred, what’s going to happen next with the investigation, and how the range of issues raised by the investigation might be resolved.

Delivering difficult information is a minefield, and there are ample opportunities to take a wrong step and see explosive results. Emotional intelligence, understanding how to read people and relate to them, is vital in delivering difficult messages effectively. This is not an innate trait for many people, and it is a difficult one to learn, as are many of the other so-called soft skills. Yet they can be critical to the successful practice of fraud examination. Examiners rarely  get in trouble over their technical skills because such skills are generally easier for them to master.  Examiners tend to get in trouble over insufficient soft skills. College degrees and professional certifications are all aimed at the technical skills. Sadly, very little is done on the front end to help examiners with the equally critical soft skills which only arise after the experience of actual practice.  For that reason, watching a mentor deliver difficult messages or deal with emotional people is also an effective way to absorb good practices. ACFE training utilizes the role-playing of potentially troublesome presentations to a friendly group (say, the investigative staff) as another way to exercise one’s skills.

Delivering bad news is largely a matter of practice and experience, and it’s not something CFEs and forensic accountants have the choice to avoid. At the end of the day, examiners need to deliver our news verbally and in writing and to facilitate our clients understanding of it. The underlying objective is to ensure that the fact of the alleged fraud is adequately identified, reported and addressed, and that the associated risk is understood and effectively mitigated.

Beyond the Sniff Test

Many years ago, I worked with a senior auditor colleague (who was also an attorney) who was always talking about applying what he called “the sniff test” to any financial transaction that might represent an ethical challenge.   Philosophical theories provide the bases for useful practical decision approaches and aids like my friend’s sniff test, although we can expect that most of the executives and professional accountants we work with as CFEs are unaware of exactly how and why this is so. Most seasoned directors, executives, and professional accountants, however, have developed tests and commonly used rules of thumb that can be used to assess the ethicality of decisions on a preliminary basis. To their minds, if these preliminary tests give rise to concerns, a more thorough analysis should be performed using any number of defined approaches and techniques.

After having heard him use the term several times, I asked my friend him if he could define it.  He thought about it that morning and later, over lunch, he boiled it down to a series of questions he would ask himself:

–Would I be comfortable as a professional if this action or decision of my client were to appear on the front page of a national newspaper tomorrow morning?
–Will my client be proud of this decision tomorrow?
–Would my client’s mother be proud of this decision?
–Is this action or decision in accord with the client corporation’s mission and code?
–Does this whole thing, in all its apparent aspects and ramifications, feel right to me?

Unfortunately, for their application in actual practice, although sniff tests and commonly used rules are based on ethical principles and are often preliminarily useful, they rarely, by themselves, represent a sufficiently comprehensive examination of the decision in question and so can leave the individuals and client corporations involved vulnerable to making unethical decisions.  For this reason, more comprehensive techniques involving the impact on client stakeholders should be employed whenever a proposed decision is questionable or likely to have significant consequences.

The ACFE tells us that many individual decision makers still don’t recognized the importance of stakeholder’s expectations of rightful conduct. If they did, the decisions made by corporate executives and by accountants and lawyers involved in the Enron, Arthur Andersen, WorldCom, Tyco, Adephia, and a whole host of others right up to the present day, might have avoided the personal and organizational tragedies that occurred. Some executives were motivated by greed rather than by enlightened self-interest focused on the good of all. Others went along with unethical decisions because they did not recognize that they were expected to behave differently and had a duty to do so. Some reasoned that because everyone else was doing something similar, how could it be wrong? The point is that they forgot to consider sufficiently the ethical practice (and duties) they were expected to demonstrate. Where a fiduciary duty was owed to future shareholders and other stakeholders, the public and personal virtues expected (character traits such as integrity, professionalism, courage, and so on), were not sufficiently considered. In retrospect, it would have been wise to include the assessment of ethical expectations as a separate step in any Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) process to strengthen governance and risk management systems and guard against unethical, short-sighted decisions.

It’s also evident that employees who continually make decisions for the wrong reasons, even if the right consequences result, can represent a high governance risk.  Many examples exist where executives motivated solely by greed have slipped into unethical practices, and others have been misled by faulty incentive systems. Sears Auto Center managers were selling repair services that customers did not need to raise their personal commission remuneration, and ultimately caused the company to lose reputation and future revenue.  Many of the classic financial scandals of recent memory were caused by executives who sought to manipulate company profits to support or inflate the company’s share price to boost their own stock option gains. Motivation based too narrowly on self-interest can result in unethical decisions when proper self-guidance and/or external monitoring is lacking. Because external monitoring is unlikely to capture all decisions before implementation, it is important for all employees to clearly understand the broad motivation that will lead to their own and their organization’s best interest from a stakeholder perspective.

Consequently, decision makers should take motivations and behavior expected by stakeholders into account specifically in any comprehensive ERM approach, and organizations should require accountability by employees for those expectations through governance mechanisms. Several aspects of ethical behavior have been identified as being indicative of mens rea (a guilty mind).  If personal or corporate behavior does not meet shareholder ethical expectations, there will probably be a negative impact on reputation and the ability to reach strategic objectives on a sustained basis in the medium and long term.

The stakeholder impact assessment broadens the criteria of the preliminary sniff test by offering an opportunity to assess the motivations that underlie the proposed decision or action. Although it is unlikely that an observer will be able to know with precision the real motivations that go through a decision maker’s mind, it is quite possible to project the perceptions that stakeholders will have of the action. In the minds of stakeholders, perceptions will determine reputational impacts whether those perceptions are correct or not. Moreover, it is possible to infer from remuneration and other motivational systems in place whether the decision maker’s motivation is likely to be ethical or not. To ensure a comprehensive ERM approach, in addition to projecting perceptions and evaluating motivational systems, the decisions or actions should be challenged by asking such questions as:

Does the decision or action involve and exhibit the integrity, fairness, and courage expected? Alternatively, does the decision or action involve and exhibit the motivation, virtues, and character expected?

Beyond the simple sniff test, stakeholder impact analysis offers a formal way of bringing into a decision the needs of an organization and its individual constituents (society). Trade-offs are difficult to make, and can benefit from such advances in technique. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that the concepts of stakeholder impact analysis need to be applied together as a set, not as stand-alone techniques. Only then will a comprehensive analysis be achieved and an ethical decision made.

Depending on the nature of the decision to be faced, and the range of stakeholders to be affected, a proper analysis could be based on any of the historical approaches to ethical decision making as elaborated by ACFE training and discussed so often in this blog.  A professional CFE can use stakeholder analysis in making decisions about financial fraud investigations, fraud related accounting issues, auditing procedures, and general practice matters, and should be ready to prepare or assist in such analyses for employers or clients just as is currently the case in other areas of fraud examination. Although many hard-numbers-oriented executives and accountants will be wary of becoming involved with the “soft” subjective analysis that typifies stakeholder and ethical expectations analysis, they should bear in mind that the world is changing to put a much higher value on non-numerical information. They should be wary of placing too much weight on numerical analysis lest they fall into the trap of the economist, who, as Oscar Wilde put it: “knew the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

The CFE, Management & Cybersecurity

Strategic decisions affect the ultimate success or failure of any organization. Thus, they are usually evaluated and made by the top executives. Risk management contributes meaningfully and consistently to the organization’s success as defined at the highest levels. To achieve this objective, top executives first must believe there is substantial value to be gained by embracing risk management. The best way for CFEs and other risk management professionals to engage these executives is to align fraud risk management with achievement (or non-achievement) of the organization’s vital performance targets, and use it to drive better decisions and outcomes with a higher degree of certainty.

Next, top management must trust its internal risk management professional as a peer who provides valuable perspective. Every risk assurance professional must earn trust and respect by consistently exhibiting insightful risk and performance management competence, and by evincing a deep understanding of the business and its strategic vision, objectives, and initiatives. He or she must simplify fraud risk discussions by focusing on uncertainty relative to strategic objectives and by categorizing these risks in a meaningful way. Moreover, the risk professional must always be willing to take a contrarian position, relying on objective evidence where readily available, rather than simply deferring to the subjective. Because CFEs share many of these same traits, the CFE can help internal risk executives gain that trust and respect within their client organizations.

In the past, many organizations integrated fraud risk into the evaluation of other controls. Today, per COSO guidance, the adequacy of anti-fraud controls is specifically assessed as part of the evaluation of the control activities related to identified fraud risks. Managements that identify a gap related to the fraud risk assessments performed by CFEs and work to implement a robust assessment take away an increased focus on potential fraud scenarios specific to their organizations. Many such managements have implemented new processes, including CFE facilitated sessions with operating management, that allow executives to consider fraud in new ways. The fraud risk assessment can also raise management’s awareness of opportunities for fraud outside its areas of responsibility.

The blurred line of responsibility between an entity’s internal control system and those of outsourced providers creates a need for more rigorous controls over communication between parties. Previously, many companies looked to contracts, service-level agreements, and service organization reports as their approach to managing service organizations. Today, there is a need to go further. Specifically, there is a need for focus on the service providers’ internal processes and tone at the top. Implementing these additional areas of fraud risk assessment focus can increase visibility into the vendor’s performance, fraud prevention and general internal control structure.

Most people view risk as something that should be avoided or reduced. However, CFEs and other risk professionals realize that risk is valued when it can help achieve a competitive advantage. ACFE studies show that investors and other stakeholders place a premium on management’s ability to limit the uncertainty surrounding their performance projections, especially regarding fraud risk. With Information Technology budgets shrinking and more being asked from IT, outsourcing key components of IT or critical business processes to third-party cloud based providers is now common. Management should obtain a report on all the enterprise’s critical business applications and the related data that is managed by such providers. Top management should make sure that the organization has appropriate agreements in place with all service providers and that an appropriate audit of the provider’s operations, such as Service Organization Controls (SOC) 1 and SOC 2 assurance reports, is performed regularly by an independent party.

It’s also imperative that client management understand the safe harbor clauses in data breach laws for the countries and U.S. states where the organization does business.  In the United States, almost every state has enacted laws requiring organizations to notify the state in case of a data breach. The criteria defining what constitutes a data breach are similar in each state, with slight variations.

CFE vulnerability assessments should strive to impress on IT management that it should strive to make upper management aware of all major breach attempts, not just actual incidents, made against the organization. To see the importance of this it’s necessary only to open a newspaper and read about the serious data breaches occurring around the world on almost a daily basis. The definition of major may, of course, differ, depending on the organization’s industry and whether the organization is global, national, or local.  Additionally, top management and the board should plan to meet with the organization’s chief information security officer (CISO) at least once a year. This meeting should supplement the CFE’s annual update of the fraud risk assessment by helping management understand the state of cybersecurity within the organization and enabling top managers and directors to discuss key cybersecurity topics. It’s also important that the CISO is reporting to the appropriate levels within the organization. Keep in mind that although many CISOs continue to report within the IT organization, sometimes the chief information officer’s agenda conflicts with the CISO’s agenda. As such, the ACFE reports that a better reporting arrangement to promote independence is to migrate reporting lines to other officers such as the general counsel, chief operating officer, chief risk officer (CRO), or even the CEO, depending on the industry and the organization’s degree of dependence on technology.

As a matter of routine, every organization should establish relationships with the appropriate national and local authorities who have responsibility for cybersecurity or cybercrime response. For example, boards of U.S. companies should verify that management has protocols in place to guide contact with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in case of a breech; the FBI has established its Key Partnership Engagement Unit, a targeted outreach program to senior executives of major private-sector corporations.

If there is a Chief Risk Officer (CRO) or equivalent, upper management and the board should, as with the CISO, meet with him or her quarterly or, at the least, annually and review all the fraud related risks that were either avoided or accepted. There are times when a business unit will identify a technology need that its executive is convinced is the right solution for the organization, even though the technology solution may have potential security risks. The CRO should report to the board about those decisions by business-unit executives that have the potential to expose the organization to additional security risks.

And don’t forget that management should be made to verify that the organization’s cyber insurance coverage is sufficient to address potential cyber risks. To understand the total potential impact of a major data breach, the board should always ask management to provide the cost per record of a data breach.

No business can totally mitigate every fraud related cyber risk it faces, but every business must focus on the vulnerabilities that present the greatest exposure. Cyber risk management is a multifaceted function that manages acceptance and avoidance of risk against the necessary actions to operate the business for success and growth, and to meet strategic objectives. Every business needs to regard risk management as an ongoing conversation between its management and supporting professionals, a conversation whose importance requires participation by an organization’s audit committee and other board members, with the CFE and the CISO serving increasingly important roles.

Team Work is Hard Work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside and Out

I had quite a good time a little over a month ago, addressing a senior auditing class at the University of Richmond on the topic of how fraud examiners and forensic accountants can work jointly together, primarily with a client’s internal auditors and, secondarily with its external auditors, to substantially strengthen any fraud investigation assignment.

Internal and external auditors each play an important role in the governance structure of their client organizations. Like CFEs, both groups have mutual interests regarding the effectiveness of internal financial controls, and both adhere to ethical codes and professional standards set by their respective professional bodies. Additionally, as I told the very lively class, both types of auditors operate independently of the activities they audit, and they’re expected to have extensive knowledge about the business, industry, and strategic risks faced by the organizations they serve. Yet, with all their similarities, internal auditing and external auditing are two distinct functions that have numerous differences. The Institute of Internal Auditors (IAA) defines internal auditing as “an independent, objective assurance and consulting activity designed to add value and improve an organization’s operations. It helps an organization accomplish its objectives by bringing a systematic, disciplined approach to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of risk management, control, and governance processes.” Internal auditors in the public sector (where I spent most of my audit career as a CIA) place an additional emphasis on providing assurance on performance and compliance with policies and procedures. Concerned with all aspects of the organization – both financial and non-financial – the internal auditors focus on future events because of their continuous review and evaluation of controls and processes.

In contrast, external auditing provides an independent opinion of a company’s financial statements and fair presentation. This type of auditing encompasses whether the statements conform with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, whether they fairly present the financial position of the organization, whether the results of operations for a given period are represented accurately, and whether the financial statements have been affected materially (i.e., whether they include a misstatement that is likely to influence the economic decisions of financial statement users). External auditing’s approach is mainly historical in nature, although some forward-looking improvements may be suggested in the auditors’ recommendations to management based on the analysis of controls during a financial statement audit.

I emphasized to the students that these definitions alone pinpoint the key distinctions that separate the two audit approaches. However, internal auditing is much broader and more encompassing than external auditing. Its value resides in the function’s ability to look at the underlying operations that drive the financial numbers before those numbers hit the books. For instance, when considering “sales” as a line item in a set of financial statements, the external audit focuses primarily on the existence, completeness, accuracy, classification, timing, posting and summarization of sales numbers. The internal audit goes beyond these assertions and looks at sales operations in a much broader context by asking questions regarding the target market, sales plan, organizational structure of the sales department, qualifications of sales personnel, effectiveness of sales operations, measurement of sales performance, and compliance with sales policies.

These types of questions probe the very core of sales operations and can greatly impact the sales numbers recorded in financial statements. For example, assuming a sales number of $6 million, the external auditor has merely to render an opinion regarding the validity of that number. The internal auditor, however, can ask whether the number could  have really been $12 million, if only the right market had been targeted, and if operations had been effective in the first place. It’s this emersion in detail and the overall knowledge of operations that makes the internal auditor such a strong partner for the fraud examiner in any joint investigation.

Internal auditors represent an integral part of the organization – their primary clients are management and the board. Although historically internal auditors reported to the chief financial officer or other senior management staff, for the last two decades internal auditing has reported directly to the audit committee of the board of directors, which helps strengthen auditor independence and objectivity. Today, internal audit functions, for the most part, follow this reporting relationship, which is consistent with the IIA’s Standard on Organizational Independence.

The chief audit executive’s (CAE’s) appointment is normally meant to be permanent, unless he or she resigns or is dismissed. In some quasi and intergovernmental organizations, CAEs are given tenured positions – five-year appointments, for example – to enhance independence.  Conversely, external auditors are not part of the organization, but are engaged by it. Their objectives are set primarily by statute and by their main client, the board of directors. External auditors are appointed by the board, and they submit an annual report to the company’s shareholders. The appointment is meant to extend for a specified time – external auditors can be re-appointed at the company’s annual general meeting. In some jurisdictions, there are limits on an external auditor’s length of service, often five or seven years.

In general, internal audit functions are not mandatory for organizations. Instead, their installment is left up to individual organizations’ discretion but internal auditing is mandatory in some cases. Companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange must have an internal audit function, whether in-house or outsourced.  An external audit is legally required for many companies, particularly those listed on a public exchange. External audits of some government agencies are also legislated, requiring government auditors to submit the audit report to their respective legislature.

The necessary qualifications for an internal auditor rest solely on the judgment of the employer. Although internal auditors are often qualified as accountants, some are qualified engineers, sales personnel, production engineers, and management personnel who have moved through the ranks of the organization with a sound knowledge of its operations and have garnered experience that makes them abundantly qualified to perform internal auditing. Annually, more and more internal auditors hold the IIA’s Certified Internal Auditor designation, which demonstrates competency and professionalism in the field of internal auditing. Because of their continuous investigation into all the organization’s operating systems, internal auditors who remain in the same organization for many years constitute a unique resource to the CFE of comprehensive and current knowledge of the organization and its operations.

External auditors are required to understand errors and irregularities, assess risk of occurrence, design audits to provide reasonable assurance of material detection, and report on such findings. In most countries, auditors of public companies must be members of a body of professional accountants recognized by law – for example, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, or Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants.  Because external auditors’ scope of work is narrowly focused on financial statement auditing, and they come into the organization only once or twice a year, their knowledge of the organization’s operations is unlikely to be as extensive as that of the internal auditors.

Those entering the CFE profession need to realize that patterns of business growth, globalization, and corporate scandals have changed the thrust of the internal audit profession in recent years. In its early years, internal auditing focused on protection oriented objectives and emphasized compliance with accounting and operational procedures, verification of calculation accuracy, fraud detection and protection of assets. Gradually, new dimensions were added that ranged from an evaluation of financial and compliance risks to an assessment of business risks, ethics and corporate governance. These changes have only increased the gap between the disciplines of internal and external auditing. Yet, despite their differences, internal auditing and external auditing no longer work in competition, as was the case before the U.S. Sarbanes-Oxley Act was enacted, when a company’s external auditors would sometimes compete with in-house audit departments for internal audit work. Regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley prohibited the external auditor from providing both external and internal audit services to the same company. Today all CFEs can benefit from the complementary skills, areas of expertise, and perspectives of both the external and the internal auditors.  The ACFE recommends that to strengthen the fraud prevention program they should meet periodically to discuss common interests (like the fraud prevention program), strive to understand each other’s scope of work and methods, discuss audit coverage and scheduling to minimize redundancies, jointly assess areas of fraud risk, and provide access to each other’s reports, programs, and work papers.

In summary, fulfilling its oversight responsibilities for assurance, the board also should require internal and external auditors to coordinate their audit work to increase the economy, efficiency, and effectiveness of the overall audit process. Despite some similarities, a world of difference exists between internal auditing and external auditing. Nonetheless, both audit types, and the respective services they provide, are essential to maintaining an effective governance structure. With a greater understanding of the unique perspective of each, CFEs can maximize the aggregate contribution or each to our joint investigations and thereby ensure organizational success.

Exploiting the Dual

businessmeet1Many of today’s CFE’s hold dual certifications as CPA’s, CIA’s, CISA’s and a host of others.  This proven enhanced expertise endows the employers of fraud examiners engaged as full time corporate auditing staff with a whole host of new and exciting fraud detection and prevention capabilities.  This is especially true of corporations whose operations are daily fraud targets.  Rather than dealing with the infrequent single instance of fraud, as is most often the case in conventional CFE practice, these staff practitioners endow their employers with enhanced power in the task of devising investigative and preventative approaches to cope with random, most often automated, fraud attempts arriving on a recurring basis, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.

One of the most effective innovations that dually certified CFE’s can bring to bear in such dynamic fraud environments involves some version of a mixture of continuous monitoring, continuous fraud auditing and continuous assurance. As the external and internal auditing professions view the first of these general concepts, continuous monitoring constitutes a feedback mechanism, primarily used by management, to ensure that systems operate and transactions are processed as prescribed. For example, as one of hundreds of possible examples, management might mandate that its staff CFE (s) periodically monitor the key fraud prevention controls that ensure that customer orders are checked against credit limits to ensure that the controls remain in place and aren’t deactivated.

Continuous auditing for fraud has been defined as the collection of evidence concerning fraud scenarios, by one or more examiners, on systems and transactions, on a continuous basis throughout a temporal period. For example, the staff examiners could routinely extract details of any unusually large adjusting journal entry for investigation, validate the reasons for the entry, determine whether it had been approved, and document these findings. The historical case file of irregularities will be built up from this and like evidence and from its related investigation, as will the examiner’s knowledge of the landscape of on-going fraud threats confronting the business.

Continuous fraud control assurance can even provide a concurrent or on demand assurance opinion on systems or transactions. A continuous opinion could represent an examiner’s or auditor’s opinion that overall fraud prevention controls are operating satisfactorily, unless a report is given to the contrary (often referred to as an ‘evergreen’ fraud control report). On-demand assessment concerning the functioning of key anti-fraud controls can be called for at any time to provide a spot evaluation at a point that does not necessarily coincide with a fiscal year or month-end. For example, a potential investor or lender might want to know the state of a company’s fraud prevention controls on the day that he/she makes a final investing or lending decision. Although these types of control assessments are still relatively rare, it’s possible that, given the pervasiveness of fraud in some heavily automated financial industries, the demand for this type of assessment may accelerate in the future.

Each of these three elements are built upon (and depend on) the one that precedes it. A continuous process of fraud assessment needs continuous monitoring systems to be in place to be effective. These monitoring systems provide the evidence to be collected and assessed upon which to build management assurance.

One of the biggest benefits of a program of continuous fraud control assessment is the beneficial effect it can have on an employing organization’s overall fraud control program. It’s obvious that, with continuous assessment, any key fraud control failures are detected and fixed as soon as they occur, bringing the effectiveness of the failed controls again more closely into conjunction with management’s expectations.  An additional plus for the continuous fraud control evaluation approach is that it provides early warning of problems; employing management can be apprised of a control failure as soon as it happens, providing maximum rectification time. Early warning reduces rectification downtime for the control. The objective is for the external auditors, when they later perform their checks, to find that the control weakness identified by the staff fraud examiner is now corrected and the corrected control operative as of the sign-off date, thus avoiding audit points.  One more advantage conferred by the presence of a dually certified fraud examiner on the audit staff is that many of the controls critical to the anti-fraud program can be fully automated under the CFE’s supervision and thus lend themselves to a continuous review approach. This proactive ‘no surprises’ approach to fraud control should be attractive to all organizations considering employing those holding the CFE certification as either staff auditors or security professionals.

What does it take for management to get this fraud prevention approach off the ground?  First, hire more dually certified CFE’s.  Next, automation is key to the program’s success, especially emphasizing data mining and analytics. Technology that can speed up communication is also needed, because there is no value in identifying an issue quickly if it is not communicated equally quickly to those who need to know about it. Continuous auditing for fraud includes continuous monitoring and reporting by exception on problems that arise. Therefore, the control environment of the employing organization must be at least good enough to ensure that the number of exceptions detected is not initially overwhelming. If anti-fraud controls are at a semi-mature level of effectiveness, however, there is really no reason why, with effort, a continuous assurance approach can’t work.

In setting up continuous audit tests, CFE’s must understand what can go wrong and know what they are looking for, in advance; this is a point where dual certification as an experience CPA or CIA is a plus in guiding the testing process and for creating the business rules for detecting exceptions and understanding them. This latter point is no trivial matter since something that could seem an exception under one set of circumstances, can be perfectly normal under a different set and trained financial assurance professionals know the difference.

Creatively employing their dually certified CFEs in an enhanced fraud detection and prevention effort based on the continuous audit approach confers several benefits to any management while enhancing the fraud prevention program:

–Creation of a database of the most frequently occurring fraud scenarios coupled with the most effective audit approaches to investigate and resolve them;

–Development of tailored data analytics and investigative tools for common fraud scenarios; auditors can get the fraud related data they need when they want them;

— Faster and more thorough fraud examinations and greater depth of audit for the same cost;

— Investigation and resolution of fraud related issues as they occur is a proven proactive approach demonstrating an enhanced level of management due diligence;

— The entire audit staff can have more alternatives in the way they perform fraud related work, including reliance on preventive controls like front end systems edits which prevent fraud be screening out transactions likely to contain fraud on the system’s front end.

–Because fraud related auditing is more effective it becomes more visible for those being audited both within and without the enterprise. Senior management has first-hand knowledge that auditors are ‘on the case’ even if they do not see them every day of the week. This visibility can also act as an additional deterrent to frauds, both internal and external.

On Auditors, Lawyers & Data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Value Added

value-addedI was reading an article in one of the business magazine to which I subscribe the other day in which a well-known business pundit was reporting that the Fortune 500 companies he interviewed for his article were becoming more and more concerned with getting increased levels of value at every level from their investments in their co-partners.  This search for higher levels of value means more pressure for performance at those same management levels and with more pressure, as every CFE knows, comes more potential for management frauds.  Fraud prevention programs cannot be immune to this phenomenon.

CFE’s have traditionally not had to consider the importance of adding value when performing their investigations since, in the case of a suspected or identified fraud, the ‘value’ of the investigation was all too apparent, i.e., to describe and, possibly, prosecute the fraudster and to lay the ground work to prevent a similar instance of the same scenario from recurring. Beyond the written report of the investigation itself, follow on (if there was any) typically consisted of verifying compliance with policies and procedures, without providing recommendations for improvement of the fraud prevention program itself or performing other consultative activities. The fraud examiner’s role was often more akin to that of a police officer than to that of a business partner.

In today’s environment, however, the evidence from practice increasingly indicates that CFE’s, like all other co-parties, are under increasing pressure to provide services that enhance the value of their client’s investment in the valuable fraud prevention services CFE’s can provide, as adding value is becoming widely considered an integral part of even the investigative process.  But what does adding value entail, and how do CFE’s provide it? While the answer may vary depending on individual circumstances, CFE’s make potentially value-adding contributions throughout the entire investigative process and in almost every aspect of our work.

When management engages the services of the CFE, it’s applying a governance control.  CFE investigations provide management, the board of directors, external auditors, and, most importantly, the audit committee with vital information about the fraud and about the key controls whose failure allowed it.  This information is the groundwork for the prosecution of the fraudster, for corrective action, for the repair of the control structure, and vital for future fraud prevention.  This type of information may or may not be possible for CFE’s to quantify monetarily in all cases, but it definitely constitutes a value-added service to management.

Most large organizations employ some sort of risk-based fraud prevention plan or program. Management, needs to address the highest fraud risks within its organization, and the fraud prevention program must reflect and address those risks. It’s here that CFE consultation can prove invaluable.  A plan developed by incorporating the organization’s highest risk departments, business units, processes, and their respective fraud prevention controls makes effective use of limited organizational resources and thereby also adds value through efficiency.

During an engagement, the CFE may observe numerous opportunities for anti-fraud related process improvement or other enhancements that might ultimately either increase the organization’s security or help fulfill its over-all duty to protection its assets. But a word of caution. While this activity constitutes adding value, investigators need to be wary of overstepping. If they come to believe every engagement should routinely include a recommendation to improve the organization’s fraud prevention effort, practitioners risk directing organizational resources ineffectively. An investigator who spends too much time looking for improvements or added controls may be harming the organization by misdirecting resources that could be applied to more critical areas.  In evaluating risk versus reward, investigators must determine if the effort and resources expended to find an improvement are worth the potential benefits.  Key to prevention of this misstep is to communicate closely with your client and use that communication to never lose sight of how your investigation fits into the bigger picture of overall management objectives for its organization. It’s within that overall context that the fraud prevention effort should always be embedded.

Management, boards of directors, audit committees, and corporate counsel will all rely eventually on the fraud examiner’s report on the facts of an investigation and on the related fraud prevention controls over the processes and risks within the organization, and they will likely view this information as value-added.  So, to add value effectively through reporting, CFE’s need to consider where they want their audience to focus. Accordingly, they should consider the needs, wants, and resources of the various stakeholders who have engaged them. The final investigative report should be easy for readers to navigate, and if appropriate, it should stratify findings into categories of importance to effectively support the dual objectives of possible prosecution and immediate remediation.  With that said, every well written fraud report will add future value through its impact on the organization’s fraud prevention effort and the investigator should write it with an eye to that important follow-on objective.

Fraud examiners are recognized by the courts and by the public as fraud specialists. Their expertise in this and related areas enables them to help management analyze fraud related risks to the organization and to assist in the design of controls to mitigate those risks. By having the expertise to perform investigations, research issues, and benchmark with peers on best practices, CFE’s can become a truly valuable resource to any client management for fraud prevention program design. These activities also constitute adding value.

Developing a complete understanding of all the aspects of how the fraud examination process fits into the client organization should be an ongoing undertaking that also adds value, though it may be difficult to quantify in terms of dollars saved, or earnings, or reduced risks. To a degree, CFE’s, as I said above, add value simply by performing their functions effectively and efficiently. But careful attention to the organization’s risk profiles and to the information requirements of various players in the organizational governance framework represent an ongoing challenge to fraud examination and forensic accounting practitioners alike, and are the key to ensuring that the value they add is maximized.

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!

Situational Assessment

fraud-examinationAs a follow-on to our last post, newly minted CFE’s working for their first client can find themselves at something of a loss about the best way to initiate an investigation; I know that was certainly true of me at what now seems so many years ago.

Every fraud investigation is a minefield whose first steps can impact the final outcome significantly. Insufficient care, coordination or discretion at the launch of the investigation may tip off the suspect, causing the destruction of potentially vital evidence. Moreover, information collected hastily without sufficient attention to procedure might prove inadmissible in court, or even lead to sanctions and fines. Any experienced practitioner will tell you that a whole host of challenges beset those of us responsible for looking into potential wrongdoing. But, as the ACFE also tells us, taking the right steps before an investigation can significantly reduce the risk of error, helping to ensure the entire investigation is planned correctly and carried out efficiently.

The ACFE advocates the performance of an initial fact finding or situational assessment phase of every investigation.  The CFE (and his or her employing attorney, if there is one) first need to assess whether an allegation has merit. This process should begin with consideration of the complainant’s credibility and motives (when that person’s identity is known) as well as other possible indications of the allegation’s likely validity. The examiner should avoid snap, simplistic judgments. Just because a complainant lacks credibility or may have ulterior motives doesn’t necessarily mean there is no need for an investigation. By the same token, even a highly credible individual can make an unfounded allegation. Upon close examination, allegations often contain specific facts, especially those related to the workings of the organization, that can help support assertions and provide the CFE a basis for corroboration moving forward.

The recommended initial situational assessment can be additionally vital because insider wrongdoing especially can have a significant impact on the organization, even more so when committed by a member of senior management. The assessment should include examination of monetary, regulatory, reputational, and other known risks.

An obvious goal for the CFE in every fraud case we work is to determine the extent of existing damage and prevent further losses. This can be difficult, as allegations rarely include an exact amount of stolen funds or an assessment of organizational impact. For example, the monetary impact of vendor kickbacks to employees is often hard to assess, as it involves gauging the extent to which the organization may have received insufficient value for the products it purchased. In these circumstances, the CFE may want to assess the extent to which the vendor is used and consider the common fraud risk associated with the industry, organization and type of vendor.

What’s more, in today’s gold fish bowl regulatory environment, issues of concern to regulators increasingly include insider trading, bribery of public officials, manipulation of publicly listed companies’ financial statements, money laundering, and privacy or data breaches. If an organization fails to conduct an adequate fraud investigation or take appropriate corrective measures, the regulator may initiate its own investigation or, where a funding relationship exists, withdraw support from the organization altogether. If allegations relate to an organization’s foreign operations, or involve activities in jurisdictions with extraterritorial legislation, international regulatory requirements should also be considered. Many countries have enacted anti-bribery legislation, including the United States’ Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), Canada’s Corruption of Foreign Officials Act, and the United Kingdom’s Bribery Act. Running afoul of these laws can have significant consequences for any of our clients.

And finally, the potential reputational damage to an organization from fraud must never be taken lightly. Examples of circumstances that may pose significant reputational risks include payments to foreign government officials, circumvention of local or foreign laws, and accepting incentives from suppliers.

The CFE and the employing attorney are in a unique position in carrying out the initial situational assessment to collect and evaluate available evidence to assist the organization in its initial understanding of the case and to plan the investigative response. This process may include preparing a preliminary evaluation of the losses or follow-on risks to which the organization has apparently been exposed.  Once the attorney has communicated to the organization the facts and issues, consideration should be given to whether to pursue criminal charges or civil remedies (i.e., recovery of funds), as it will affect the CFE’s approach to the entire inquiry process. For instance, in the United States and Canada, the standard of proof for criminal charges is higher than that of civil remedies. Further, the makeup of the CFE’s investigative team may be different depending on the objectives of the investigation. Decisions may change over time and as new circumstances of the case come to light, the investigative strategy may also need to change.

Ideally, the investigative team for the initial assessment should be kept as small as possible, and participation should be on a “need-to-know” basis. Moreover, team members must not have any conflicts that would, or even be perceived to, impair their judgment or objectivity in the investigation.

ACFE Standards also require that the team be comprised of appropriately skilled and qualified individuals to perform, or at least oversee, the evidence collection process, particularly of electronic evidence. Team members need to be informed that any one of them may be called upon to testify as a witness in court and that notes and work papers are discoverable and could appear before a judge or jury. Therefore, work paper files, including interview notes and communications, should be thorough and carefully maintained. Numerous additional considerations should be kept in mind when choosing members of the investigation team on the front end, including participants’ independence, as well as the potential need for additional legal counsel, supplementary investigative experts, and other expertise. Maintaining independent oversight is crucial to the investigation’s credibility; failure in this area leaves all the investigative findings open to criticism by opposing counsel, regulators, or law enforcement agencies. In many cases, especially those involving financial matters, corporate counsel supported by CFE’s or forensic accountants might be in the best position to manage the overall investigation.

To protect litigation privilege, the employing attorney or independent external counsel will be included in the CFE’s investigation from the beginning. These experts can also advise the CFE on legal matters such as employee suspensions or terminations and evidence gathering techniques to help ensure future court admissibility. Moreover, by adding credibility, counsel, internal or independent, provides assurance that the investigation will stand up to external legal scrutiny.

The independent, reputable CFE can add credibility to a fraud inquiry from first to last, bring current knowledge of relevant issues, and provide or coordinate the acquisition of skills that many companies lack in areas such as computer forensics, analytics, and forensic accounting. Such help is also important if opinion testimony may be required, as the testimony is admissible only if it comes from witnesses (like CFE’s) whom the courts determine are experts. When needed, for example, in cases that may lead to pursuit of criminal charges or civil remedies, supplementary experts should be retained early on. To maintain litigation privilege, investigators and experts should always be retained through the CFE’s employing attorney or external counsel.