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What is a Forensic Accountant?

What is a Forensic Accountant?

By Michael Kessler, CrFA, CFE, DABFA

In an all too simplistic description, the forensic accountant is an experienced auditor, accountant and investigator of legal and financial documents. In cases when a client has been charged with a fraud against the government, public, or private business, or a fraud involving insurance claims, real estate, investments and financial instruments, the forensic accountant has the ability to analyze information and help establish a solid defense. For those of you who prefer a formal definition, you may unfortunately be out of luck, as no industry-wide denotation yet exists. However, The Accountant's Handbook of Fraud & Commercial Crime, offers a definition, which has been informally accepted by many forensic accounting experts. It states:

"Forensic and investigative accounting is the application of financial skills and an investigative mentality to unresolved issues, conducted within the context of the rules of evidence. As a discipline, it encompasses financial expertise, fraud knowledge, and a strong knowledge and understanding of business reality and the working of the legal system. Its development has been primarily achieved through on-the-job training, as well as experience with investigating officers and legal counsel."

Because the field has just recently blossomed attorneys who should be using the services of a forensic accountant are unaware of the advantages, and those attorneys who have heard of forensic accountants may not be sure of how the services might benefit them.

The skills of forensic accountants and their "expert testimony" can be called upon in a variety of assignments. Providing litigation support is an accurate but extremely broad description of the possible services they provide. Expert witness testimony, discovery assistance, validation of business facts, computation of damages, and determination of compliance are some of the more specific services which are performed by the forensic accountant.

However, one should not underestimate the scope or type of case in which a forensic accountant may become engaged in. This work, like everything in legal areas, tends to have subjective underpinnings. In many legal disputes , forensic accountants may work for either the defending or prosecuting attorneys. Although the very same information is examined by the forensic accountant hired by the prosecutor, he or she will invariably produce numbers starkly different from thus compiled by a forensic accountant retained by the defense. These differing interpretations of financial data as expressed by the "experts" run along the same parallel lines as two forensic professionalism the medical field detailing their differing opinions of a scientific diagnosis. So why else would an attorney utilize a forensic accountant? The forensic audit/investigation can be used to unravel the hidden information that might ultimately provide the financial support desired by the defense agreement. The forensic accountant is consistently thinking in terms of how and why a fraud might have been perpetrated and audit accordingly. If expenses in a certain cost center seem high or revenue seem low, the forensic accountant does not just attempt to determine reasonableness. In a phrase I coined which has been quoted on many occasions, "While accountants look at the number, forensic accountants look behind the numbers."

The process of criminal defense demands commanding expertise, which a skilled forensic specialist can offer. Forensic accountants are gaining more and more acceptance by the legal profession, thus we are witnessing the inevitable growth in demand for its services. This growth makes it imperative that the attorney knows where to find a qualified and experienced forensic accountant. It should be understood that providing litigation support is not the exclusive area of practice of CPAs. In many CPA firms, the accountants have little or no experience in fraud auditing and even less experience in presenting a defense for an individual accused of fraud. Statistics indicate that a CPA with 20 years experience has probably never worked on a case involving fraud and in all likelihood never testified in court. Therefore a logical source in locating an expert forensic accountant, who is certified as a fraud examiner by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, is by contacting an investigative consulting firm. In recent years, formidable teams consisting of licensed private investigators, forensic accountants, and other skilled professionals have been established and have become extremely instrumental in providing invaluable investigative and accounting service to the legal profession. This "team approach" of an investigative consulting firm guarantees attorney and their clients, the authoritative forensic accounting and litigation support needed to come out on top.





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