First Things First

About a decade ago, I attended a training session at the Virginia State Police training center conducted by James D. Ratley, then the training director for the ACFE. The training session contained some valuable advice for CFE’s and forensic accountants on immediate do’s and don’ts if an examiner strongly suspects the presence of employee perpetrated financial fraud within a client’s organization. Mr. Ratley’s counsel is as relevant today as it was then.

Ratley advised that every significant employee matter (whether a theft is involved or not) requires thoughtful examiner deliberation before any action is taken, since hasty moves will likely prove detrimental to both the investigator and to the client company. Consequently, knowing what should not be done if fraud is suspected is often more important to an eventual successful outcome than what should be done.

First, the investigator should not initially confront the employee with his or her suspicions until the investigator has first taken several important preliminary investigative steps.  Even when those steps have been taken, it may prove necessary to use a different method of informing the employee regarding her status, imminent material harm notwithstanding. False (or even valid) accusations can lead to defamation lawsuits or at the very least to an extremely uncomfortable work environment. The hasty investigator or management could offend an innocent person by questioning her integrity; consequently, your client company may never be able to regain that person’s trust or prior level of commitment. That downside is just one example of the collateral damage that can result from a fraud. Even if the employee is ultimately found to be guilty, an investigator’s insinuation gives him or her time to alter records and conceal the theft, and perhaps even siphon off more assets. It takes only a moment for an experienced person to erase a computer’s hard drive and shred documents. Although, virtually all business records can be reconstructed, reconstruction is a costly and time-consuming process that always aggravates an already stressful situation.

Second, as a rule, never terminate or suspend the suspect employee until the preliminary investigative steps referred to above have been taken.  The desire on the part of management to take decisive action is understandable, but hasty actions may be detrimental to the subsequent investigation and to the company. Furthermore, there may be certain advantages to continuing the person’s employment status for a brief period because his or her continued status might compel the suspect to take certain actions to your client’s or to the investigation’s benefit. This doesn’t apply to government employees since, unlike private sector employees, they cannot be compelled to participate in the investigation. There can be occasions, however, where it is necessary to immediately terminate the employee. For example, employees who serve in a position whose continued employment could put others at risk physically, financially, or otherwise may need to be terminated immediately. Such circumstances are rare, but if they do occur, management (and the CFE) should document the entire process and advise corporate counsel immediately.

Third, again, as a rule, the investigator should never share her initial suspicions with other employees unless their assistance is crucial, and then only if they are requested to maintain strict confidentiality.  The CFE places an arduous burden on anyone in whom s/he has confided. Asking an employee to shoulder such responsibilities is uncharted territory for nearly anyone (including for the examiner) and can aggravate an already stressful situation. An examiner may view the confidence placed in an employee as a reflection of his and management’s trust. However, the employee may view the uninvited responsibility as taking sides with management at the expense of his relationship with other employees. Consequently, this step should be taken only if necessary and, again, after consultation with counsel and management.

Regarding the do’s, Ratley recommended that the instant that an employee fraud matter surfaces, the investigator should begin continuous documentation of all pertinent investigation-related actions taken. Such documentation includes a chronological, written narrative composed with as much specificity as time permits. Its form can take many shapes, such as handwritten notes, Microsoft Word files, spreadsheets, emails to yourself or others, and/or relevant data captured in almost any other reproducible medium. This effort will, of course, be time consuming for management but is yet another example of the collateral damage resulting from almost any employee fraud. The documentation should also reference all direct and related costs and expenses incurred by the investigator and by the client company. This documentation will support insurance claims and be vital to a subsequent restitution process.  Other collateral business damages, such as the loss of customers, suppliers, or the negative fiscal impact on other employees may also merit documentation as appropriate.

Meetings with corporate counsel are also an important do.  An employee fraud situation is complex and fraught with risk for the investigator and for the client company. The circumstances can require broad and deep expertise in employment law, criminal law, insurance law, banking law, malpractice law, and various other legal concentrations. Fortunately, most corporate attorneys will acknowledge when they need to seek additional expertise beyond their own experience since a victim company counsel specializing in corporate matters may have little or no background in matters of fraud. Acknowledgment by an attorney that s/he needs additional expertise is a testament to his or her integrity. Furthermore, the client’s attorney may contribute value by participating throughout the duration of the investigation and possible prosecution and by bringing to bear his or her cumulative knowledge of the company to the benefit of the organization.

Next, depending on the nature of the fraud and on the degree of its fiscal impact, CFEs should meet with the client’s CPA firm but exercise caution. The client CPA may be well versed in their involvement with your client through their work on income taxes, audit, review, and compilations, but not in forensic analysis or fraud examination. Larger CPA firms may have departments that they claim specialize in financial forensics; the truth is that actual experience in these matters can vary widely. Furthermore, remember that the situation occurred under your client CPA’s watch, so the firm may not be free of conflict.

Finally, do determine from management as early as possible the range of actions it might want to take with respect to the suspect employee if subsequent investigation confirms the suspicion that fraud has indeed occurred.  Deciding how to handle the matter of what to do with the employee by relying upon advice from management and from the legal team can be quite helpful in shaping what investigative steps are taken subsequently. Ratley pointed out that the level and availability of evidence often drive actions relating to the suspect. For example, the best course of action for management may be to do nothing immediately, to closely monitor and document the employee’s activities, to suspend the employee with pay, or immediately terminate the suspect’s employment. There may be valid reasons to exercise any one of these options.

Let’s say the CFE is advised by management to merely monitor and document the employee’s activities since the CFE currently lacks sufficient evidence to suspend or terminate the employee immediately. The CFE and the client’s IT operation could both be integral parts of this option by designing a plan to protect the client from further loss while the investigation continues behind the scenes. The investigation can take place after hours or under the guise of an “efficiency audit,” “business planning,” or other designation. In any case, this option will probably require the investigator to devote substantial time to observe the employee and to concurrently conduct the investigation.   The CFE will either assemble sufficient evidence to proceed or conclude there is inadequate substantiation to support the accusation.

A fraud is a devastating event for any company but Mr. Ratley’s guidance about the first steps in an investigation of employee perpetrated financial fraud can help minimize the damage.  He concluded his remarks by making two additional points; first, few executives are familiar by experience with situations that require CFE or forensic accountant expertise; consequently, their often-well-meaning actions when confronted with the actuality of a fraud can result in costly mistakes regarding time, money and people. Although many such mistakes can be repaired given sufficient money and time, they are sometimes devastating and irrecoverable.  Second, attorneys, accountants and others in the service professions frequently lack sufficient experience to recognize the vast differences between civil and criminal processes.  Consequently, these professionals often can provide the best service to their corporate clients by referring and deferring to more capable fraud examination specialists like certified fraud examiners and experienced forensic accountants.

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