When You Assume

by Rumbi Petrozzello
2018 Vice President – Central Virginia ACFE Chapter

On November 8, 2007, in the small town of Constantine, Michigan, 11-year-old Jodi Parrack was reported missing. Residents from the surrounding region volunteered to search for the missing girl, including Ray McCann, a police reservist. During the search, Ray suggested to Jodi’s mother, Valerie, that they should search for Jodi in the local cemetery. Valerie and Ray did so and, tragically, found her daughter there; she had been murdered.

Almost immediately, Ray came under suspicion. His reaction to Jodi’s death appeared to some of the investigators to be suspicious and why had he suggested that he and Valerie go to the cemetery, of all places, to look for Jodi? Then, during their subsequent investigation, the police found Jodi’s DNA on Ray’s body; according to Ray this was because he had pulled Valerie away from Jodi when he and her mother discovered the child’s body.

For years, Ray was under suspicion. He was brought in for questioning by the police on multiple occasions, and his answers, as far as the police were concerned, were not particularly convincing. He claimed to have been in one place and the police said that there was proof that he was not there. Seven years after Jodi’s murder, Ray was arrested and charged with perjury, related to the answers he had originally given the police; this seems to have been a tactic the police employed to hold him while they continued to try to gather enough evidence to charge him with Jodi’s murder.

While Ray was being held and facing from two to twenty years behind bars, another girl was attacked; she fought back, escaped and led the police to another man, Daniel Furlong. It turned out that Furlong’s DNA had been found on Jodi’s body during the original investigation as well as Ray’s and yet, the police had persisted in focusing solely on Ray. It was also revealed that the authorities were not honest when they told Ray that they possessed evidence Ray was lying. All the police really had was a deeply held conviction that Ray was being deceptive, leading to their determination to somehow develop evidence to validate that feeling.

By the time Ray was released after spending 20 wasted months of his life behind bars, he had lost his job, his family and the trust of the community in which he lived and which he had hoped someday to serve.

As Fraud Examiners and/or Forensic Accountants, we are engaged to investigate alleged wrongdoing and to follow up on leads as we work to resolve often confusing and contradictory matters. As we seek evidence, interview people and try to figure out what happened and who did what, it can be all too easy to make the mistake of viewing a red flag as somehow constituting proof. If someone giggles when they’re telling you they know nothing; if a person taps her foot throughout an interview, or if someone is extremely helpful, none of those things in themselves means anything definitive in resolving the question as to whether or not they have done anything wrong, let alone illegal.

Professional skepticism is a CFE’s tendency not to believe or take anyone’s assertions at face value, a mental tendency to ask every assertion to “prove it” (with evidence). The inevitable occurrence of confusion, errors and deception in all situations involving actual or suspected fraud dictates this basic aspect of professional skepticism. Persuading a skeptical CFE or forensic accountant is not impossible, just somewhat more difficult than persuading a normal person in an everyday context. Our skepticism protects the Ray McCann’s of this world because it’s a manifestation of objectivity, holding no special concern for preconceived conclusions on any side of an issue. Skepticism is not an attitude of being cynical, hypercritical, or scornful. The properly skeptical investigator asks these questions (1) What do I need to know? (2) How well do I know it? (3) Does it make sense?

Professional skepticism should lead investigators to appropriate inquiry about every clue involving seeming wrong doing. Clues should lead to thinking about the evidence needed, wringing out all the implications from the evidence, then arriving at the most suitable and supportable explanation. Time pressure to complete an investigation is no excuse for failing to exercise professional skepticism and bias and prejudice are always unacceptable. Too many investigators (including auditors) have gotten themselves into trouble by accepting some respondent’s glib assertion and stopping too early in an investigation without seeking facts supportive of alternative explanations.

A red flag means only that further investigation is warranted; it definitely does not mean that the examiner should shut down all other avenues of investigation and it certainly does not mean that an attempt should ever be made to make the crime fit the person. In the sad case of Ray McCann, the police continued to pursue him to the exclusion of all others even though they had found someone else’s DNA on Jodi’s body. They never appeared to be even looking for any other suspect. Even when Daniel Furlong subsequently confessed to murdering Jodi, the local authorities still persisted in implying that Ray was somehow connected to the crime; in the face of all contradictory evidence, the police still stubbornly refused to let go of their original hypothesis.

As we pursue our work as forensic accountants and fraud examiners, we should be constantly reviewing our hypotheses and assessing our approaches.

• Are we trying to make evidence fit the facts as we initially suppose them to be?
• Are we ignoring evidence because it does not fit the story we’re trying to tell?
• Are we letting a particular person’s behavior cloud a more objective judgment of the totality of what’s going on?

Often, even after a person has been cleared of suspicion in a case, we hear parties involved in the investigation make statements along the lines of, “I just know they are good for something.” Fortunately, our practice is not founded on feelings and gut instincts; our practice, and profession, is one that relies on evidence. As you’re investigating a matter, keep in mind:

• Following your defined process and procedure throughout is paramount to investigative success. Even if someone or some aspect of a case looks totally transparent within the context of the investigation, be thorough and follow your evidence all the way through.

• If your findings do not support your original premise, don’t try to force things. Step back and ask yourself why this is the case. Ask yourself if you need to reconsider your foundational hypothesis.

• Beware of confirmation bias – that is be careful that you are not looking only for data that reinforces the conclusion(s) that you have already reached (and, in so doing, ignoring anything that might prove contradictory).

• Even if your team is determined to work the assignment in a particular direction, make sure you speak up and let them know about any reservations you might have. You may not have the popular position, but you may end up expressing the critical position if it turns out that there is other evidence in light of which the conclusions the team has made need to be adjusted.

In summary, when you feel it in your gut and you are absolutely sure that you are right about a hypothesis, it’s very difficult to look beyond your conviction and to see or even consider other options. It’s vital that you do so since, as the ACFE has pointed out so many times, there is a hefty price to be paid professionally for ignoring evidence which eventually proves to be critical simply because it appears not to corroborate your case. Due professional care requires a disposition to question all material assertions made by all respondents involved in the case whether oral or written. This attitude must be balanced with an open mind about the integrity of all concerned. We CFEs should neither blindly assume that everyone is dishonest nor thoughtlessly assume that those involved in our investigations are not ethically challenged. The key lies in the examiner’s attitude toward gathering the evidence necessary to reach reasonable and supportable investigative decisions.

One thought on “When You Assume

  1. Great post! This was a great reminder for why I gravitated towards a career in investigations (and something I’ve continued into my post-government career as a CFE). Over the years, I had a chance to serve as a training agent for many new investigators. I’ve also been fortunate enough to teach new agents at the academy. With each, we always discussed the importance of having an investigative hypothesis and a resulting plan that carefully follows the facts but also does so in an environment that has some direction. They also typically benefit from hearing many examples where plans need to change because of new information disclosed during an investigation. Unfortunately, some investigative plans for inexperienced investigators was to simply do EVERYTHING possible. In the alternate, I can recall a number of cases during my career where the investigators became too invested in the outcome and essentially worked to make that square peg fit into a round hole. I appreciate your post because it also reminds me of the blend of art and science that “investigating” can be for those who are fortunate to be able to do it for a living. Thanks!

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