Tag Archives: corporate governance

Governance and Fraud Detection

Originally, the business owner had the most say in decisions regarding the enterprise. Then, corporate structures were put in place to facilitate decision making, as ownership was spread over millions of shareholders. Boards of directors took over many responsibilities. But with time, the chief executive officer (CEO) ended up having a large say in the composition of the board and, in many instances, ruled and controlled the company and its strategy. The only option for shareholders appeared to be to sell their shares if they were not happy with the performance of a specific organization. Many anti-fraud professionals think that this situation contributed significantly to business demises such as that of Enron and to the horrors consequent to the mortgage meltdown and accompanying fiscal crisis.

Proposals were made to re-equilibrate the power structure by giving more power and responsibilities to the board and to specific committees, such as the audit committee, to better deal with internal control and fair financial reporting or the remuneration committee to better deal with the basis for the type and the level of remuneration of the CEO. New legislation was put into place, such as the US Sarbanes-Oxley Act and Basel II. Compliance with these pieces of legislation consumed a lot of attention, energy and cost.

Enterprises exist to deliver value to their stakeholders. This is accomplished by handling risk advantageously and using resources responsibly. Speedy direction setting and quick reaction to change are essential in such a situation so decision making must be shared among many. Therefore, governance comes into play. Successful enterprises implement an over-arching system of governance that facilitates the achievement of their desired outcomes, both at the enterprise level and at each level within the enterprise; this is especially true with regard to the problem of fraud detection.  In this context, a holistic definition of enterprise governance is in order: Governance is the framework, principles, structure, processes and practices to set direction and monitor compliance and performance aligned with the overall purpose and objectives of an enterprise.

This definition is initially implemented by the answers to and actions on the following governance related questions:

Who is accountable and responsible for enterprise governance? Stakeholders, owners, governing bodies and management are responsible and accountable for governance.

What do they do, and how and where do they do it? They engage in activities (set direction, monitor compliance and performance) in relationship with others and use enablers (frameworks, principles, structures, processes, practices) within the governance view appropriate to them (governance of the enterprise; of an organizational entity within the enterprise such as a business unit, division or function; and of a strategic asset within the enterprise or within an organizational entity).

Why do they do it? They institute governance to create value for their enterprise, determine its risk appetite, optimize its resources and use them responsibly.

In summary, accountability and stewardship are delegated to a governance body by the owner/stakeholder, expecting it to assume accountability for the activities necessary to meet expectations. In alignment with the overall direction of the enterprise, management executes the appropriate activities within the context of a control framework, balancing performance and compliance in achieving the governance objectives of value creation, risk management and resource optimization.

Fraud detection (within the context of a fully defined fraud prevention program) is a vital business process of the over-hanging governance function and can be implemented by numerous generally accepted procedures.  But a few examples …

One way to increase the likelihood of the detection by the governance function of fraud abuses is the conduct of periodic external and internal audits, as well as the implementation of special network security audits. Auditors should regularly test system controls and periodically “browse” data files looking for suspicious activities. However, care must be exercised to make sure employees’ privacy rights are not violated. Informing employees that auditors will conduct a random surveillance not only helps resolve the privacy issue, but also has a significant deterrent effect on computer assisted fraud exploits.

Employees witnessing fraudulent behavior are often torn between two conflicting feelings. They feel an obligation to protect company assets and turn in fraud perpetrators, yet they are uncomfortable in a whistleblower role and find it easier to remain silent. This reluctance is even stronger if they are aware of public cases of whistleblowers who have been ostracized or persecuted by their coworkers or superiors, or have had their careers damaged. An effective way to resolve this conflict is to provide employees with hotlines so they can anonymously report fraud. The downside of hotlines is that many of the calls are not worthy of investigation. Some calls come from those seeking revenge, others are vague reports of wrongdoing, and others simply have no merit. A potential problem with a hotline is that those who operate the hotline may report to people who are involved in a management fraud. This threat can be overcome by using a fraud hotline set up by a trade organization or commercial company. Reports of management fraud can be passed from this company directly to the board of directors.

Many private and public organizations use outside computer consultants or in-house teams to test and evaluate their security procedures and computer systems through the performance of system penetration testing.  The consultants are paid to try everything possible to compromise an enterprise’s system(s). To get into offices so they can look for passwords or get on computers, they masquerade as janitors, temporary workers, or confused delivery personnel. They also employ software based hacker tools (readily available on the Internet) and social engineering techniques.  Using such methods, some outside consultants claim that they can penetrate 90% or more of the companies they “attack” to a greater or lesser degree.

All financial transactions and activities should be recorded in a log. The log should indicate who accessed what data, when, and from which location. These logs should be reviewed frequently to monitor system activity and trace any problems to their source. There are numerous risk analysis and management software packages that can review computer systems and networks and the financial transactions they contain. These packages evaluate security measures already in place and test for weaknesses and vulnerabilities. A series of reports are then generated to explain any weaknesses found and suggest improvements. Cost parameters can be entered so that a company can balance acceptable levels of vulnerability and cost effectiveness. There are also intrusion-detection programs and software utilities that can detect illegal entry into systems along with software that monitors system activity and helps companies recover from fraud and malicious actions.

People who commit fraud tend to follow certain patterns and leave tell-tale clues, often things that do not make sense. Software is readily available to search for these fraud symptoms. For example, a health insurance company could use fraud detection software to look at how often procedures are performed, whether a diagnosis and the procedures performed fit a patient’s profile, how long a procedure takes, and how far patients live from the doctor’s office.

Neural networks (programs that mimic brain activity and can learn new concepts) are quite accurate in identifying suspected fraud. For example, Visa and MasterCard operations employ neural network software to track hundreds of millions of separate account transactions daily. Neural networks spot the illegal use of a credit card and notify the owner within a few hours of its theft. The software can also spot trends before bank investigators do.

Each enterprise needs to determine its appropriate overall governance system and the fraud detection approaches it decides to implement in support of that system. To help in that determination, mapping governance frameworks, principles, structures, processes and practices, currently in use, is beneficial. CFE’s and forensic accountants are uniquely qualified to assist in this process given their in-depth knowledge of all types of fraud scenarios and the tailoring of the anti-fraud controls most appropriate for the control of each within a specific company environment.

From the Head Down

fishThe ACFE tells us that failures in governance are among the most prominent reasons why financial and other types of serious fraud occur.  Often the real cause of major corporate scandals and failures detailed in the financial trade press is a series of unwelcome behaviors in the corporate leadership culture: greed, hubris, bullying, and obfuscation leading to fantasy growth plans and decisions taken for all the wrong reasons; so, that old saying remains true, fish rot from the head down.

CFE’s find themselves being increasingly called upon by corporate boards and upper operating management to assist as members of independent, control assurance teams reviewing governance related fraud risk. In such cases, where a board has decided to engage a third party, such as a consulting firm or law firm, to assess the risk associated with certain governance processes and practices, a CFE member of the team can ensure that the scope of work is sufficient to cover the risk of fraud, that the team’s review process is adequate, and that the individuals involved can provide a quality assessment.  Thus, if the CFE has suggestions to make concerning any fraud related aspect of the engagement, these can be shared with the review team as a whole.

As the fraud expert on a review team identifying governance related risks, the ACFE recommends that the CFE keep an open mind. Even the best boards, with the most experienced and competent directors, can fail. Examples of red flag, fraud related governance risks to consider include:

–Organizational strategies are approved and performance monitored by executives and the board without reliable, current, timely, and useful information;
–There is too great a focus on short-term results without sufficient attention to the organization’s long-term strategy;
–Oversight by the board is limited by a lack of directors with the required business, industry, technical, IT, or other experience;
–The board’s dynamics do not include sufficient challenge and skeptical inquiry by independent directors;
–Oversight by the audit committee is limited by a lack of experience in financial reporting and auditing;
–There have been instances in the past of the external auditors having failed to detect material misstatements because part of their team lacked the necessary industry experience and understanding of relevant accounting standards;
–Board oversight of risk management is constrained by a lack of risk management experience;
–Strategies approved by the board are not linked to individual goals and objectives of managers in operating departments or over key business processes;
–IT priorities are not consistent with business and organizational priorities due to a lack of communication and alignment of goals and incentive programs;
–Employees do not understand the corporate code of business conduct because it has not been clearly communicated and/or explained to them.

Once the team has identified and assessed the principal governance-related risks, the first step is to determine how to address them. The review team should take each in turn and determine the best approach. Several options might be considered. Using generally accepted traditional control approaches, many governance-related risk areas (such as awareness of the corporate code of conduct, alignment of management incentive plans and organizational strategies, or the quality of information used by the executive leadership team and the board) can be addressed without too much difficulty.

Next, the CFE needs to consider which fraud risks to recommend to the team for periodic re-assessment in recurring risk assessment plans. It’s not necessary or appropriate to periodically assess every identified governance-related fraud risk, only those that represent the most significant on-going risk to the success of the organization and its achievement of its overall fraud prevention objectives.

In a relatively mature organization, the most valuable role for the CFE team member is likely to be that of providing assurance that governance policies and practices are appropriate to the organization’s fraud risk control and management needs – including compliance with applicable laws and regulations – and that they are operating effectively.  On the other hand, if the organization is still refining its governance processes, the CFE may contribute more effectively to the governance review team in an anti-fraud consulting capacity advising or advocating improvements to enhance the evolving fraud prevention component of the organization’s governance structure and practices.

Within the context of the CFE’s traditional practice, there will be times when the board or general counsel (which has so often historically directly engaged the services of CFEs) wants the assessment of a particular governance fraud risk area to be performed by the in-house counsel.  In such instances, the CFE can directly partner with the in-house staff, forming a relationship alternative to performance as a review team member with another type of assurance provider or outside consultant.  This arrangement can offer significant advantages, including:

–Ensuring that the CFE has the benefit of the in-house legal team’s subject-matter expertise as well as knowledge of the company;
–Allow more CFE control over the scope of work, the way the engagement is performed, the conclusions drawn, and over the final report itself; for example, some CFE’s might feel more confident about expressing an opinion on whether the fraud risk under review is managed effectively by the board with in-house counsel support.

A risk-based fraud prevention plan is probably not complete unless it includes consideration of the risks inherent in the organization’s governance processes. Selecting which areas of governance to review should be based on the assessed level of risk, determined with input from management and (in all likelihood) the board itself. Different governance risk areas with fraud impact potential may merit different CFE involved review strategies, but, whatever approach is taken, careful planning is always a must.

Reviews of fraud risk related to corporate governance are never easy, and they often carry political risk. However, they are clearly important and should be given strong consideration as a component of every fraud prevention effort – not just because they are required by professional assurance standards, but because governance process failures can contribute so devastatingly to financial frauds of all kinds.