Tag Archives for " Government "

Rita Crundwell story
Dec 06

The Rita Crundwell Story: Why Some Ranches Have a Bad Smell

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation

Is it possible for one person to steal over $53 million from a city with an annual budget of less than $10 million? Yes. The Rita Crundwell story provides a cautionary tale for small businesses, governments, and nonprofits.

The Theft

Rita Crundwell, comptroller, and treasurer of Dixon, Illinois stole $53 million over a twenty-year period. The city of 16,000 residents held Crundwell in high esteem. One friend described her as “sweet as pie.” Another said: “You could not find a nicer person.”

So why did she steal? It appears Rita just enjoyed the good life. She used the money to fund one of the top quarter horse ranches in the country, and she did it with style: Some of the funds were used to purchase over $300,000 of jewelry and a $2.1 million motor coach vehicle.

Rita Crundwell story

The picture is courtesy of AdobeStock.com

Her annual salary? $80,000.

The city’s annual budget? $6 to $8 million

Were yearly audits performed? Yes.

Were budgets approved? Yes.

So how could this happen? Ms. Crundwell had won the trust of those around her—especially that of mayor and council. In April 2011, finance commissioner and veteran council member, Roy Bridgeman, praised Crundwell calling her “a big asset to the city as she looks after every tax dollar as if it were her own.” (Too much trust is the main cause of white-collar crime.)

It was a disturbing moment when Dixon Mayor James Burke presented the FBI with evidence of Crundwell’s fraud. Burke later recalled his emotions and words: “I literally became sick to my stomach, and I told him that I hoped my suspicions were all wrong.” Such a response is understandable given that Crundwell had worked for the city for decades. She had fooled everyone.

According to the mayor, the city’s annual audits raised no red flags, and the city’s primary bank never reported anything suspicious. So how did she steal the money? In 1990, Crundwell opened a secret bank account in the name of the city (titled the RSDCA account: the initials stood for reserve sewer development construction account). Crundwell was the only authorized check signer for the account, and the RSDCA bank account was never set up on the city’s general ledger. The City’s records reflected none of the RSDCA deposits or disbursements.

Crundwell would write and sign manual checks from a legitimate city capital project fund checking account, completing the check payee line with “Treasurer.” (Yes, Crundwell had the authority to issue checks with just her signature—even for legitimate city bank accounts.) She would then deposit the check into her secret account. From the bank’s perspective, a transfer had been made from one city bank account to another (from the capital projects fund to the reserve sewer development construction fund).

While the capital project fund disbursement was recorded on the city’s books, the RSDCA deposit was not. A capital project fund journal entry was made for each check debiting capital outlay expense and crediting cash. But no entry was made to the city’s records for the deposit to the RSDCA account. Once the money was in the RSDCA account, Crundwell wrote checks for personal expenses—and she did so for over twenty years.

To complete her deceit, Crundwell provided auditors with fictitious invoices from the Illinois Department of Transportation; these invoices included the following notation: Please make checks payable to Treasurer, State of Illinois. (So the canceled checks made out to Treasurer agreed with directions on the invoice, but the words “State of Illinois” were conveniently left off the check payee line.) Remember Crundwell was the treasurer of Dixon. 

Those invoices and the related checks were often for round dollar amounts (e.g., $250,000) and most were for more than $100,000. In one year alone, Crundwell embezzled over $5 million.

So how was she caught? While Rita was on an extended vacation for horse shows, the city hired a replacement for her. For some reason, Crundwell’s substitute requested all bank account statements from the city’s bank. As the bank statements were reviewed, the secret bank account was discovered. And soon after that, the mayor contacted the FBI.

The Weakness

Why was Rita able to steal $53 million? Wait for it…a lack of segregation of duties (getting tired of my saying this?–sorry, but so many thefts are rooted in this weakness).

Rita could do the following:

  • Write checks
  • Approve payments
  • Create and monitor the budget
  • Enter transactions into the accounting system
  • Reconcile the bank statements

The Fix

Multiple people should perform accounting duties, not just one person.

Accounting employees should be required to take at least a one-week vacation, and while they are gone, someone else should perform their duties. The vacation itself is not the key. The performance of the absent accountant’s duties is. Why? Doing so allows the replacement person to understand the work of the vacant employee. And, more importantly, as the substitute employee works, he or she sees any unusual or fraudulent activity.

Here’s another action to take. Periodically contact your organization’s bank and ask for a list of all bank accounts. Then compare the list to the bank accounts set up on the general ledger. If a bank account is not on the general ledger, see why. Request a copy of the related signature card from the bank.

What Happened to Rita?

So, what happened to Rita? She was sentenced to 19.5 years in prison. Here are pictures from the Chicago Tribune that shed light on the fraud.

Capital asset theft
Nov 07

Theft of Capital Assets: How to Understand It and Prevent It

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation

The Theft

In businesses, nonprofits, and governments, the theft of capital assets happens often. Today I explain how these thefts occur and how you can prevent them.

A USA Today article began with, “Stolen and sensitive U.S. military equipment, including fighter jet parts wanted by Iran…have been available to the highest bidder on popular Internet sales sites.” The article went on to say that the equipment, “purchased with taxpayer money,” was available for purchase on eBay and Craigslist and included “components from F-14 fighter jets” and “used Nuclear Biological Chemical protective suit.”

Capital asset theft

Picture is courtesy of Adobe pStock.com

Capital assets often go missing because no one is paying attention, and the thief knows it. Such assets can be stolen with the intent to sell and convert to cash or simply for personal use.

The thefts often occur when employees place equipment or other capital assets in their vehicles and drive home. If the employee wants to cover their tracks, they might complete accounting paperwork for disposal of assets (saying the equipment was junked). More often than not, however, the asset is just stolen because the employee knows that no one will notice, or, if someone does, he can say, “I don’t know what happened to that piece of equipment.”

Long-term employees realize that the external auditors seldom audit existing capital assets. Yes, the auditor will examine an invoice, but how many auditors physically inspect plant, property and equipment?

The Weakness

The main enabling factor is usually a lack of accountability. Many companies, nonprofits, and small governments do not perform periodic fixed asset inventories. Often equipment is purchased and added to the depreciation schedule, but no one–at a later date–compares this master list of fixed assets to what is (or should be) physically present.

The Fix

Performing periodic inventories is the key to lessening the threat of capital asset theft.

First assign each capital asset to a person (usually a department head or a supervisor); let this person know that he or she is personally responsible for the item. Then have someone external to each department perform periodic inventories of departmental assets.

Also, install security cameras to record all activity.

segregation of duties
Jun 06

How to Lessen Segregation of Duties Problems in Two Easy Steps

By Charles Hall | Auditing , Fraud

Darkness is the environment of wrongdoing.

Why?

No one will see us–or so we think.

As you’ve seen many times, fraud occurs in darkness.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Hobbit stories, Sméagol, a young man murders another to possess a golden ring, beautiful in appearance but destructive in nature. The possession of the ring and Sméagol’s hiding of self and his precious (the ring) transforms him into a hideous creature–Gollum. I know of no better or graphic portrayal of how that which is alluring in the beginning, is destructive in the end.

Fraud opportunities have those same properties: they are alluring and harmful. And, yes, darkness is the environment of theft. What’s the solution? Transparency. It protects businesses, governments, and nonprofits. And while we desire open and understandable processes, often businesses have just a few employees that operate the accounting system. And many times they alone understand how it works.

It is desirable to divide accounting duties among various employees, so no one person controls the entire process. This division of responsibility creates transparency since multiple eyes see the accounting processes–but this is not always possible.

Lacking Segregation of Duties

Many small organizations lack appropriate segregation of duties and believe that solutions do not exist or that fixing the problem is too costly. But is this true? Can we create greater transparency and safety with simple procedures and without significant cost?

Yes.

Below I propose two processes to reduce fraud:

  1. Bank account transparency and
  2. Surprise audits.

1. Bank Account Transparency

Here’s a simple and economical control: Provide all bank statements to someone other than the bookkeeper. Allow this second person to receive the bank statements before the bookkeeper. While no silver bullet, it has power.

Persons who might receive the bank statements first (before the bookkeeper) include the following:

  • A nonprofit board member
  • The mayor of a small city
  • The owner of a small business
  • The library director
  • A church leader

What is the receiver of the bank statements to do? Merely open the bank statements and review the contents for appropriateness (mainly cleared checks).

In many small entities, accounting processes are a mystery to board members or owners since only one person (the bookkeeper) understands the disbursement process, the recording of journal entries, billing and collections, and payroll.

One set of eyes on an accounting process is not a good thing. So how can we shine the light?

Fraud Prevention

Picture courtesy of DollarPhoto.com

Second Person Sees the Bank Statements

Allow a second person to see the bank statements.

Fraud decreases when the bookkeeper knows someone is watching. Suppose the bookkeeper desires to write a check to himself but realizes that a board member will see the cleared check. Is this a deterrent? You bet.

Don’t want to send the bank statements to a second person? Request that the bank provide read-only online access to the second person, and let the bookkeeper know that the other person will review bank activity.

Even the appearance of transparency creates (some) safety.

Suppose the second person reviewer opens the bank statements (before providing them to the bookkeeper) and does nothing else. The perception of reviews enhances safety. I am not recommending that you don’t perform the review, but if the bookkeeper even thinks someone is watching, fraud will lessen.

2. Surprise Audits

Another way to create small-entity transparency is to perform surprise audits. These reviews are not opinion audits (such as those issued by CPAs) but involve random inspections of various areas such as viewing all checks clearing the May bank statement. Such a review can be contracted out to a CPA or performed by someone other than the bookkeeper–such as a board member.

Segregation of Duties

Picture courtesy of DollarPhoto.com

Adopt a written policy stating that the surprise inspections will occur once or twice a year.

The policy could be as simple as the following:

Twice a year a board member (or designee other than the bookkeeper) will inspect the accounting system and related documents. The scope and details of the inspection will be at the judgment of the board member (or designee). An inspection report will be provided to the board.

Why word the policy this way? You want to make the system general enough that the bookkeeper has no idea what will be inspected but distinct enough that an actual review occurs with regularity (thus the need to specify the minimum number of times the review will be performed).

Sample Inspection Ideas

Here are some sample inspection ideas:

  • Inspect all cleared checks that clear a particular month for appropriate payees and signatures and endorsements
  • Agree all receipts to the deposit slip for three different time periods
  • Review all journal entries made in a two week period and request an explanation for each
  • Review two bank reconciliations for appropriateness
  • Review one monthly budget to actual report (to see that the report was appropriately created)
  • Request a report of all new vendors added in the last six months and review for appropriateness

The reviewer may not perform all of the procedures and can perform just one. What is done is not as important as the fact that something is done. In other words, the primary purpose of the surprise audit is to make the bookkeeper think twice about whether he or she can steal and not be caught.

Again multiple people seeing the accounting processes reduces the threat of fraud.

Shine the Light

The beauty of these two procedures (bank account transparency and surprise audits) is they are straightforward and cheap to implement but nevertheless powerful. So shine the light.

What other procedures do you recommend for small entities?

For more information about preventing fraud, check out my book: The Little Book of Local Government Fraud Prevention.

omission of management, discussion and analysis
Mar 27

Omission of MD&A from Governmental Financial Statements

By Charles Hall | Auditing , Local Governments

Can a government exclude the management, discussion, and analysis from its financial  statements? This article answers that question.

According to AU-C 730, the auditor’s report on the financial statements should include an other-matter paragraph that refers to the required supplementary information (RSI). In governmental financial statements, the management, discussion, and analysis (MD&A) is considered RSI. Though the MD&A is “required” supplementary information, governments can–strangely enough–exclude it from the financial statements.

omission of management, discussion and analysis

Picture from AdobeStock.com

Omitting the MD&A – Effect on an Audit Opinion

If the required supplementary information is omitted, the auditor should include an other-matter paragraph in the opinion such as the following:

Management has omitted the management, discussion, and analysis that accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America require to be presented to supplement the basic financial statements. Such missing information, although not a part of the basic financial statements, is required by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, who considers it to be an essential part of financial reporting for placing the basic financial statements in an appropriate operational, economic, or historical context. Our opinion on the basic financial statements is not affected by this missing information.

Notice the omission of the MD&A does not affect the opinion rendered (in other words, it does not result in a modified report).

RSI Audit Standard

AU-C 730 is the audit standard for required supplementary information. Click here for an overview of the supplementary information audit standards. The former supplementary information standards were SASs 118, 119 and 120; those standards are now–under the Clarity Standards–AU-C sections 720, 725, and 730.

Omitting the MD&A – Effect on a Compilation Report

In compilation reports, the language is as follows:

Management has omitted the management, discussion and analysis that accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America require to be presented to supplement the basic financial statements. Such missing information, although not a part of the basic financial statements, is required by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board which considers it to be an essential part of financial reporting and for placing the basic financial statements in an appropriate operational, economic, or historical context. 

Jun 29

How a Tax Commissioner Walks Away with $800,000

By Charles Hall | Asset Misappropriation

The Theft

Some twenty years ago, I was working on an audit of a county tax commissioner’s office. We were noticing differences in the receipts and the cash collections.

Theft of cash

Picture is courtesy of AdobeStock.com

So one day I walk into the Tax Commissioner’s office. As I step in, I see several thousand dollars of cash laying on her desk. So, I remarked to her, “Haven’t made a deposit lately?” She laughed and said, “No, I’ve been too busy lately.”

I thought to myself, “Strange. She knows we’re here for the annual audit, and she has all this undeposited cash in open view. It’s as though she has no fear.”

The next day a gentleman comes into the room where we (the auditors) were working and whispers to me, “The Commissioner has a cocaine habit.” I did not know the fellow, so I wondered if the assertion had any merit. Regardless, this was shaping up to be an interesting audit.

Our audit disclosed unaccounted-for funds of over $300,000 in the year one. Year two, the differences continued and exceeded $500,000. After three years, the unaccounted-for amount was in the $800,000 range.

Why was she not removed? Tax Commissioners are elected in Georgia, so the only person that could remove her was the governor. The local county commissioners could not dismiss her.

Finally, the FBI was brought in. But even they could not prove who was stealing the money. Why? The tax office had two cash drawers and eight clerks. All eight worked out of both drawers. So when cash went missing, you could not pin the differences on any one person.

In addition, the books were a disaster, postings were willy-nilly. There was no rhyme or reason–what I call “designed smoke.”

The tax commissioner eventually went to prison for tax evasion. She made the mistake of depositing some of the stolen cash into her personal bank account, and the Feds were able to prove she had not reported the income.

The Weakness

The primary weakness was the lack of design in the collection process. Two or more people should never work from one cash drawer. Deposits were not timely made (and in many cases, not made at all). And then the books (mainly the tax digest) was not appropriately posted as collections were received.

The Fix

The primary fix was to remove the tax commissioner.

Next, each cash drawer should be assigned to only one person at a time.

Cash receipts should be written and the tax digest should be posted as tax payments are received.

Finally, deposits should be made daily.

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