Chicago, IL.; Mar 10, 2002
About 15 percent of the FBI's 12,000 agents worldwide have accounting backgrounds, agency spokesman Ross Rice said. Though they're not called forensic accountants, some of them worked with forensic accountants after Sept. 11 to sort through the tangled finances of the terrorists, [Michael G. Kessler] said.
Craig L. Greene is a tough guy. He's an accountant too. Doesn't add up? Then step into Greene's office, where he keeps a collection of FBI caps, and meet the new breed of numbers-cruncher.
Greene, a burly man with a sly smile and the guile of a police detective, is an accountant with an attitude, a slightly cynical forensics specialist who investigates white-collar crime and who numbers many FBI agents among his students at the national Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. He uses savvy, not a calculator; a computer, not a pencil. And he is in demand.
Virtually unheard of 15 years ago, forensic accounting has stormed into the public consciousness recently amid news accounts of high- profile cases such as the Enron scandal.
In an age of increasingly complex business deals and heightened awareness of white-collar wrongdoing and corporate crime, forensic accounting has grown fast since surfacing with a splash during the savings-and-loan crisis of the late 1980s. It's a twist on a dowdy profession, a milieu of intrigue and daring in a field long known for tedium and pocket protectors.
Prosecutors and corporate lawyers frequently enlist their aid.
"Accounting used to be putting numbers in boxes, but now suddenly you're going out playing corporate James Bond and chasing down criminals," Greene said.
"You've got to have some street smarts."
Of course, in many cases, as with Enron, the subjects of scrutiny are accountants too.
Forensic accountants have helped sort through the finances of terrorists and played a part in the undoing of powerful people such as hotelier Leona Helmsley and, quite possibly, F.Scott Fitzgerald's fictional Jay Gatsby, according to fraud investigator Michael G. Kessler, who once served as chief of tax investigations for New York City.
"For a lot of accountants, it's the sexy side of accounting," said John Warren, associate general counsel for the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. "You're not just going over tax returns all day, you're sort of fighting crime."
Occasionally there's even an element of danger, or at least perceived risk. Susan Henry, a senior manager with BDO Seidman, felt uneasy while investigating a Mexican factory owned by a U.S. company. Some U.S. nationals working in Mexico were embezzling money from the factory, though the company didn't know how—or how much.
"All they knew was that these employees were living high on the hog," Henry said. "So they hired us to do an audit."
As often happens in forensic accounting, Henry and her associate had to be discreet as they went about their work. "We went in to do the audit but we really didn't tell the people there that we were looking to find out if they were stealing anything," she said.
"One of the sacred rules of investigating is that the last person you interview is your target."
Some precarious situations
In this case, however, Henry and her associate had to rely on their target for a ride into the factory each day to study the books.
"We couldn't take a rental car across the border into Mexico, so he drove us," she said. "He knew we were doing an audit, but that's all he knew. "It was kind of a precarious situation."
The man now is serving prison time, Henry said.
"External accountants, they're watchdogs. The internal auditors, they're more like seeing-eye dogs. And a forensic accountant is a bloodhound," said Larry Crumbley, a 61-year-old accounting professor at Louisiana State University who has written a series of detective novels about a forensic accountant.
"There's a lot more to it than just crunching numbers," Henry said of investigating a case. "It involves interviewing and other skills. The start of any investigation involves interviewing people to find out the basis of the allegations. Otherwise it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack."
Forensic accountants can also be drawn into political investigations. Last month a federal grand jury subpoenaed records of Gov. George Ryan's fund in connection with the campaign's report that it had discovered $156,000 in excess funds in a bank account. A spokesman for the elections board has said the campaign would hire forensic accountants to trace the origins of the cash.
Forensic accounting's recently romanticized image has helped stir interest in the specialty. The fact that it generally pays better than traditional accounting doesn't hurt.
"We see more and more people jumping on the bandwagon today for that simple reason: There are more fees to be had in forensic accounting," said Kessler, who now has his own firm.
Fraud examiners on increase
Since 1992 the fraud examiners association has grown from about 7,000 members to more than 25,000, about 11,700 of whom are accountants or auditors, Warren said. The organization has added almost 3,500 accountants to its rolls in the last 10 years.
"We get a lot more calls from people wondering about how to become forensic accountants," Warren said. "Since the Enron thing came up, especially, there's been a noticeable increase."From time to time you'll get the odd call from somebody who's got no background in accounting, the funny e-mail from, say, a wheat farmer who suddenly has decided his goal in life is to fight fraud."
Some universities have added courses in forensic accounting. Officials at Indiana University introduced a graduate-level course five years ago and have seen it become a popular part of the curriculum, said John Hill, associate dean of the Kelley School of Business.
As more boutique accounting firms advertise forensic services and more private-investigative firms offer accounting along with wiretapping and tailing, the field has become more competitive, Henry said.
Forensic accountants sort through the financial tangle of civil and criminal proceedings, building cases that will hold up in court. They work on everything from divorces to Enron.
Sometimes it's as simple as determining assets for a defendant in a lawsuit so the judge can decide how much to award in damages. Sometimes it's as complicated as unraveling an elaborate corporate kickback or embezzlement scheme that might lead to criminal charges.
"You have to think like a criminal," Crumbley said.
Not surprisingly, Jack Burke's experience as a Chicago police detective has helped him immeasurably in his second career as a forensic accountant. Burke became a public accountant after retiring from the police department, where he had earned an accounting degree by attending night school while working days as an auto-theft detective.
Former police sergeant
Burke was a sergeant in the police department's financial-crimes unit when he retired in 1990.
He said, "I used to tell a joke when our detectives in financial crimes got measured up for safety vests, that a special qualification of the vest was that it be able to repel a crazed accountant with a No. 2 pencil."
Now, as president of Jack Burke & Associates Ltd., Burke himself is an accountant, and his specialty is forensics.
"It's knowing something about how to do accounting investigations, but it's also the general investigative skills--how to unearth information," he said. "Those are skills that good detectives have learned long ago."
About 15 percent of the FBI's 12,000 agents worldwide have accounting backgrounds, agency spokesman Ross Rice said. Though they're not called forensic accountants, some of them worked with forensic accountants after Sept. 11 to sort through the tangled finances of the terrorists, Kessler said.
The romanticized image of forensic accounting has some basis in reality, Henry said, "Because it involves something somebody might have done bad, people equate it with mystery and intrigue. But on the other side of the coin, you're digging down into the books and records of a company, and you have to be a damn good accountant."
Said Greene, "The reality is that you spend lots of time hunched over a computer."
Greene, a partner in the accounting firm Rome Associates, recently unraveled a corporate kickback scheme involving a manufacturing company that had hired his firm to investigate after receiving an anonymous tip. The message said that an executive of the company was getting kickbacks from a vendor in Florida.
Greene's first clue that something was amiss was the address of the vendor. It looked wrong somehow—like a street in a residential neighborhood, not a business district.
Calling up maps and satellite images of Florida on the Internet, he sat in his office 17 stories above downtown Chicago, studied the computer screen and discovered the address was in a complex of town homes.
Greene flew to Florida, found the vendor's mother living in the condominium, smooth-talked her by saying she looked like Sally Field and persuaded the unwitting woman to show him the books—and the canceled kickback checks.
He said, "The evidence we put together is usually so damning, that it's `Let's make a deal.'"
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Sub Title: Chicagoland Final Edition
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(Copyright © 2002 by the Chicago Tribune)
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