Life has many unexpected turns; one such turn was the direction my career took when I was 29 years old. A single phone call from an employment recruiter planted the seed for a 17-year career as a forensic accountant.
As I child, I was not into playing with dolls. In fact, the only one I can remember enjoying was my Bionic Woman doll. I liked the fact that she had a “mission purse” with documents and accessories inside. But I was more interested in games that involved problem solving, learning math, and solving equations. My grandfather was my first math teacher; he relished the fact that I enjoyed math. I was the oldest grandchild, and my enthusiasm led him to continue his math teaching with my sister and my cousins when they were old enough.
I attended Fontbonne Hall Academy in Brooklyn for high school. During my time there, I knew I wanted to be an accountant; I liked the idea of working with numbers and having the amounts balance. My fellow accountants are no doubt used to hearing, “You must really love numbers,” or “You must be really good at math,” when people find out what they do. It’s true enough, but fortunately an accountant doesn’t have to be a calculus whiz (which I was not, even though I generally excelled in math). After high school, I attended Baruch College in Manhattan, received my accounting degree, and became a CPA.
Finding the Forensic Accounting Path
When the recruiter called me, I was working as an accounting manager at a holding company for an advertising agency whose parent company was based in Japan. The recruiter asked me if I would be interested in interviewing for a job as a forensic accountant. I had previously heard the term, but did not know, or have any interest in knowing, what the job entailed. He explained that forensic accountants utilize their accounting and auditing skills to investigate financial issues, usually working with attorneys and assisting them in resolving different types of disputes. I was attracted to the idea of working with attorneys on cases and deciphering the roots of complex financial issues. I was also intrigued by the idea that the work would be similar to solving financial puzzles.
As an accountant, I had found myself changing jobs approximately every two years because I felt something was missing in my professional life; I was not totally fulfilled in the work that I was doing. Perhaps that’s why I accepted the recruiter’s offer to meet with a partner of the forensic department in a public accounting firm.
The meeting went well, as I became a forensic accountant with the firm for 10 years. I was fortunate to fall under the tutelage of my practice leader Franklin O’Toole, who allowed me to experience the many facets of forensic accounting, as well as understand the thought process behind his business decisions. That background has proved extremely helpful, as now I am the partner-in-charge of forensic and dispute advisory services at Raich Ende Malter & Co. LLP in Manhattan.
The Customer (or Client) Is Not Always Right
One of the many things I have learned is that a forensic accountant’s role and an attorney’s focus or goal differ in one important aspect: CPAs must maintain their objectivity. We are not advocates for our clients, but for our own independent judgment.
In one case, we were contacted by a civil law firm that needed assistance in the defense of a manufacturer of body armor for the military and police. The company’s CEO had been sued and then indicted for “cooking the books” by skimping on material in the vests. Both the civil and criminal attorneys working on the case were pleased with our presentation. Next, the CEO himself, who had been present but had not introduced himself as such, told us his story. When he spoke, he was rude to the other attorneys. We decided that we could work through the CEO’s attitude, giving him the benefit of the doubt since he was facing 25 years in prison.
In order to bid on the assignment and make a rough estimate of the cost of our services, we had to understand the state of the relevant documents to assess how much preliminary work we would have to do. We were told that the copious documents had already been organized and indexed, so we would be able to get up to speed quickly.
CPAs must maintain their objectivity. We are not advocates for our clients, but for our own independent judgment.
We visited the defense site on a Friday morning; what we saw was chaos. The CEO, or his criminal attorneys, had hired private detectives, exlaw enforcement, IT technicians, and junior accountants, and they were all there, trying to get his attention. He seemed to be giving random people 15 seconds of attention before turning to the next one. His rudeness boiled over to some of our staff as well. Overall, it was a bad sign.
Our team split up, two of us testing the claim that the documents were indexed, organized, and ready for forensic analysis. I went looking for accounting records and anything that would help. After approximately an hour and a half, we knew that the indexing was unreliable and incomplete, and that the documents were not professionally organized. As for the accounting records, I was unhappy with what I saw.
The CEO’s defense was claiming that the CFO had designed the whole scheme to enhance her own bonus. It would have been ideal for us to hear her side of the story through her deposition; however, as in many criminal cases, depositions were not going to be taken. It didn’t matter to the defense if the CFO testified before trial because their strategy was clear—place all the blame on her. Our duty, on the other hand, was to collect, analyze, and evaluate all of the available information with objectivity and integrity.
We managed to get the CEO into a conference room, where we told him we would have to redo the organization and indexing to make the documents useful for our procedures. The CEO was understandably upset because he felt that he had already paid for this work and time was a precious commodity. We gave him an estimate, as well as a request for a recurring retainer. We also informed him that although we understood the stress of his situation, if we were to take on this assignment, he would have to cease being rude to our staff. He said he would have to talk to his attorneys, and we arranged a conference call for Sunday morning. He then warned us that he believed that law enforcement would be listening and that we should announce at the beginning of the call that this was a privileged conversation. We responded that the conversation would not be privileged because we did not have an executed engagement letter with his attorneys, and thus the attorney-client privilege did not extend to us non-attorneys. On the way back to the office, we discussed that request, among other things, trying to decide whether to proceed.
The Sunday morning conference call was unique. As we had not yet been retained by his attorneys, we made no announcement with respect to privilege. The CEO started discussing the case, but soon recalled his earlier request and took it upon himself to announce that this was a privileged conversation. Four clicks followed, which we assumed was law enforcement hanging up. We eventually decided not to participate in the CEO’s defense, believing he would never accept that our role was to be objective agents of his attorneys. Some time later, we read that he was convicted and given a long prison term.
Constant Challenge and Rewards
Over the course of my career I have worked on a variety of high profile cases, including frauds involving household names and divorces that were the subject of television movies. Although each engagement is unique, the common denominator is that I’m still enthusiastic about every new one. There is nothing more satisfying than knowing you were part of a successful outcome for a client—and the truth.