One of the first rules detectives, prosecutors and journalists learn is “follow the money.”
Now students in the University of Washington Bothell’s forensic accounting class are learning that following that money trail can lead to interesting discoveries.
The class, taught by professor Rajib Doogar, is part of UW Bothell’s master’s in accounting program. Doogar started offering the class two years ago and its popularity has grown tremendously in that time.
The students don’t just sit in a classroom and learn how to crunch numbers — they get the opportunity to see how forensic accounting could have life-altering consequences.
Doogar partners with the King County prosecutor’s office each quarter, giving students the chance to work on an actual case involving financial misconduct.
Their efforts will impact more than their final grade; their work could potentially lead to someone doing time in jail.
“It seemed like a very good way to drive home to students the enormous responsibility that rests on your shoulders when you’re a professional accountant,” Doogar said. “It certainly makes the students grow up in a hurry.”
Doogar said he had heard of one or two programs where forensic accounting was offered, but it wasn’t done on a regular basis. “We stumbled on this idea of a project with local law enforcement and King County responded very positively”.
The prosecutor’s office picks a case they think the students can handle in a 10-week course and uploads the data and evidence they have collected onto a secure server. Students break into groups and look at different accounts, trying to reconstruct the flow of money from transactions.
The students don’t handle complex corporate fraud cases, but focus on cases involving individuals — someone scamming the elderly or embezzling money from a nonprofit organization. Doogar said these cases often have very compelling stories.
“When the students are looking at it, they’re thinking of their parents, they’re thinking of their families, they’re thinking of themselves, saying ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ ” Doogar said.
He brings in professionals from the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners to mentor students and give them a taste of what it’s like to be on the job.
Kenneth Hines, who focused on criminal enforcement of the tax code while working at the IRS, returned to school to get his master’s degree at UW Bothell and was in the first forensic accounting class Doogar taught.
He enjoyed interacting with the students and watching their enthusiasm as they worked their way through a case where a treasurer was pilfering money from a local Little League.
Students in that first class went through bank records and tracked the treasurer’s activities to reconstruct how funds from the Little League were issued.
After completing the program, Doogar asked Hines if he wanted to be a mentor for the class.
Hines returns once a week to talk to the class, borrowing from training materials he had from his 25 years with the IRS; he even used the Lindbergh kidnapping case from the 1930s as an example of how forensic accounting can help solve crimes.
In that case, the IRS was able to track the ransom money and prove who had kidnapped Charles Lindbergh’s infant son.
Solving a puzzle
“You’re putting together a jigsaw puzzle without a picture,” Hines said. “It’s putting it together by the shapes and doing a lot of painstaking analysis.”
This quarter, the class looked at a fraud case involving adult children who may have stolen money from their elderly mother.
“You let the financial records and the activity tell the story,” Hines said. “We’ll show a pattern of activity that the money being spent was nowhere near for the benefit on mom, it was for the benefit of others.”
Once the students figure out that story, they practice telling it — testifying at mock trials in class. Students will grill one another with questions, tearing apart the story and looking for possible legal explanations for why the money moved from one place to another.
Doogar said it prepares students for defense attorneys looking to attack the story.
“I don’t want to go into court and have my testimony torn apart,” he said. “If that happens to me once in my lifetime, every lawyer in the world is going to know that I got destroyed and then this would be the end of my career as a forensic accountant.”
Both Hines and Doogar signed off on weekly reports that students sent to the prosecutor’s office, updating the attorneys on their progress.
Hines tried to prepare students for the emotional impacts that come with reconstructing money records. It’s one thing to help a big corporation track where money went, but it’s harder when they can put a face to the victim.
“They saw the victim was an elderly woman in assisted living and she needed the people she trusted to take care of her,” Hines said.
At the end of the quarter, students present their findings to a prosecutor from the prosecutor’s office.
Hines said the attorney was impressed with the students’ work, even mentioning that he might use the students’ timeline of financial transactions in trial.
Hines said hearing comments like that from professionals was a great benefit to the students and that he was proud of what they accomplished.
“This woman was unable to speak for herself,” Hines said. “They spoke for the victim when no one else was.”
Forensic accounting is a growing specialty in both criminal and civil law and Hines said colleges are slowly starting to respond by offering specialized classes.
“I think where we’re one of a kind in that we’re partnering with King County,” Hines said. “Students have a live case to look at and put together.”
Doogar hopes to one day make the class available to students outside the master’s program and offer it to first year college students as well. Freshmen in the class will analyze bank statements and find out how where the money went to.
“They’ll have to make up their mind whether the money was justly spent or unjustly spent,” Doogar said. “You don’t need to be an accountant to do that.”
He wants to teach students the skills to hold themselves mentally accountable and avoid the temptation that can come when you’re given access to other people’s money, whether it’s an elderly relative or local organization.
“How do you not fall into that trap? Fraud is a slippery slope,” Doogar said. “How do you set yourself up to avoid temptation?”