I’ve gotten some crazy questions over the years but this one pretty much takes the cake. I’m not saying it’s stupid, nor am I saying it’s all that crazy, it’s just… well… out there, is all. Read on.
I’m a college student at the University of North Texas. Fraud has been a hot topic in my courses this month. We covered many scandals including Crazy Eddie, Barry Minkow, NextCard, Enron, and Bernie Madoff. This has got me thinking a lot about how I would react if I was in the shoes of the auditor. The students in my class always say to just report the fraud, however they never put themselves in the shoes of the fraudster to determine how the fraudster would act nor do they think about protecting the reputation of the firm.
I’ve watched enough movies to know that if a fraudster finds out that somebody knows “too much,” then that person probably won’t make it home alive that night, unless they cooperate. I remember in that movie, “The Other Guys,” the auditing partner got killed because the fraudsters didn’t want him snitching out any information to authorities.
Another thing is that if it is found out that a partner is involved in fraud, this will ruin the firm’s reputation if this gets reported to the SEC. However, if the firm handles this internally, fire the partner, admit mistake, and let the public know that it doesn’t want anything to do with the partner, then perhaps only the partner would get in trouble and not the firm.
So exactly how are you suppose to act in situations of fraud? Of course AICPA tells us to first report it to your supervisor, then to the audit committee, and then the SEC. But still though, you got to get this out before someone kills you and you’ve got to handle it in a manner that best protects the reputation of the firm. Am I right? Also, have you ever heard of any auditors that were murdered because they knew too much? When you read about Enron or the Bernie Madoff scandal, there are talks about death threats, but you don’t necessarily hear about any murders involved. So it may be something that only happens in the movies.
Well, since you brought up Crazy Eddie, my first instinct was to pose this question to Crazy Eddie’s corrupt CPA, Sam Antar. Thankfully Sam obviously checks his Twitter account every five minutes and had some thoughts for me almost immediately.
“Yes, the potential is there. Depends on the client. Have that person contact me if worried,” he tweeted. Now isn’t that sweet? If anyone out there is feeling the heat, you know who to hit up.
His thought? It’s rare, if not impossible. Why would a fraudster whack the auditor? By the time the fraud is uncovered, it’s too late. The workpapers would likely document said fraud, so the fraudster would then be forced to whack the entire chain on up to the partner and who has time to do all that killing? “No logic in whacking outside auditor unless part of conspiracy,” Sam said.
That being said, does anyone remember Allen Stanford’s sketchy auditor C.A.S. Hewlett (“C.A.S.H.” get it?!)? He apparently kicked the bucket on January 1st (a real accountant would have kicked the bucket on December 31st, pfft), just a month before Stanford was charged with fraud (though he didn’t get arrested until June of that year). The circumstances surrounding his death were, uh, weird to say the least but I don’t think anyone is going to go so far as to say he got whacked.
Or how about Ken Lay? I mean, does anyone really believe he had a heart attack? There is even an entire website dedicated to exposing Ken Lay’s post-mortem life.
Now, here’s where it gets tricky, and I don’t expect you to know this since you haven’t made it out into the real world yet. What is an auditor’s job? Is it to uncover fraud? Or is it to verify with a minimum of certainty (a.k.a. “reasonable assurance”) that the financial information presented by a company is probably legit? If you answered the latter, you win. Forensic accountants dissect fraud, auditors simply check boxes. I’m sorry if this offends any of you hardcore auditors out there but in your hearts, even you guys know I’m right. Auditing is a joke, an intricate dance (read: performance) that exists more for entertainment than functionality. If you don’t agree with me, I’d be happy to name any number of companies that prove my point for me (let’s see… Enron, Worldcom, Overstock, Satyam, Olympus…).
What do you think the odds are that a first or second year auditor would even be able to detect fraud? Don’t you think the criminals behind it are at least clever enough to hide their wrongdoing from a bunch of fresh-faced kids with their SALY checklists? Look at the lengths Crazy Eddie went to – to success until their greed got the best of them and a chick ruined the whole scam. And that’s the thing, the auditors rarely uncover fraud, it’s usually the fraudsters themselves who end up exposing themselves though greed or just plain stupidity.
Whistleblowers don’t make friends but they don’t have to hire armed guards either. Like I said, by the time the fraud is exposed, it’s too late to start killing people to hide the truth.
And thanks to SOX, it is illegal to “discharge, demote, suspend, threaten, harass or in any manner discriminate against” whistleblowers, so a more likely scenario is that revelations of fraud will come from within the firm, not from the outside auditors who are pissed off to be doing inventory counts on New Year’s Day.
You watch too many movies, kiddo. Just check the list, collect the bank recs and call it a day.