Forensic accountants are frequently necessary in business litigation. This is my next installment of the "ask the experts" series. Stephen Pedneault is an expert in forensic accounting. He is the principal of Forsenic Accounting Services. Here is my interview with Stephen.
Disclaimer: I am not endorsing any experts that I feature on this blog or the opinions expressed. I am posting these interviews to offer insights from the various professionals that get involved with business litigation cases.
What are the biggest issues you see now with respect to forensic accounting and business litigation? Probably the biggest issue we face in every case regardless of the venue it’s in is the availability of records. We can pretty much figure out anything if we have records available, computerized records or paper records. The biggest challenge for us is getting access to them and actually getting the opposing side to produce them. That’s our biggest stumbling block in pretty much every engagement we do.
If a business owner suspects fraud, how soon should they come to you or an attorney to deal with that issue?
Well as soon as possible. We get a lot of calls from exactly the audience you described and one of the first things we have to ask them is you know do you have counsel, do you have an attorney that’s either representing you as a shareholder or a partner or a member, or does the LLC or the entity have counsel because before I hear too much of the story there’s no privilege between an accountant and a client. So I don’t want to hear too much, what I want to make sure is as early as possible, I want to be involved early, but I got to make sure that before I’m involved early on there’s an attorney involved so we can establish some attorney/client privilege and then we can get retained directly by counsel to be part of that privilege and then we can start talking about what are the issues and concerns.
What can business owners do to stop or detect or prevent fraud amongst it’s employees? When we’re talking employee embezzlement, there’s really only three things that are available. You can prevent certain things, you can detect certain things, and then you can insure against the things you didn’t prevent and detect. Certainly setting up the controls to prevent as much as possible, so employees not signing checks, having business owners involved in the signing of checks, not issuing credit cards and bank cards to employees, limiting what they have access and opportunity. That’s on the prevention side but you can’t prevent everything from occurring so on the detection side, starting with the basics, the owners looking at the bank statements every month, looking at the cancelled check images, looking online at the banking activity, looking at accounts receivable, knowing who owes what balances and are we getting paid, managing the cash flows. These are all important basic controls that over time probably start out as the owners are doing but then people get busy and they hire key people and they delegate the responsibilities and once again you know down the road that key employee, and it’s almost always the key employee that we depend on, has taken advantage of the situation and started either stealing the checks or paying themselves extra payroll or stealing the deposits.
What kinds of problems have you come across that have been created in terms of your investigations of fraud brought about by smartphones and portable devices?
Well there is two clear trends. One is that our evidence which was already computerized is now becoming wireless. The evidence meaning the transactions and also where the records are maintained. This whole concept of cloud computing, businesses are putting all their business records no longer on their servers, their putting it out on a server somewhere in the world. So they can access it anywhere on the internet. The problem is gaining access to that evidence is going to be a challenge because nobody really knows where it’s hosted. It could be hosted next door, it could be hosted in Nigeria. So getting access to the ultimate records of where the company’s accounting system is maintained is a challenge. Using cellular devices to do the banking there is no history on any laptop servers or computers, it’s all wireless. So the whole nature of gaining evidence is changing and becoming a huge challenge for us just to get access to it.
What records do you look to get access to from an audit perspective and also what form of the records do you like to receive it in?
That answer depends on what the context is for the forensic accounting. Ultimately we want to see the underlying reliable records: bank statements, cancelled check images, deposit details, credit card statements. We like the general ledgers, we like the computerized records but they can all be manipulated so we like to get, we’d like to get the records but we’d like to be able to corroborate them to underlying source third party records that are ultimately reliable and whether we get them in computerized form, we get them in images, we get them in paper, it doesn’t really matter to us, we’re used to dealing with boxes and boxes of records.