Tuesday, September 2, 2014

If you want to work for the FBI, get an accounting degree

Having worked in the automated fingerprint identification system industry for a number of years, I have a somewhat skewed perspective of what the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) does. When I think of the FBI, I think about fingerprints and palmprints and mugshots and stuff like that.

Obviously, that isn't all that the FBI does. Everyone knows that FBI agents have guns and cool scientific tools and spend their time running down alleys, chasing terrorists and other criminals.

Well, it turns out that the common view of the FBI is also skewed.

Source: FBI

Take this recent FBI post:

Public corruption arrests and convictions in major metropolitan areas usually garner a great deal of national attention. But big cities don’t have a monopoly on crooked politicians—they can be found anywhere.

Like Progreso, Texas, a small town a few miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. For almost a decade—from 2004 to 2013—several members of the same family, all Progreso government officials, used their positions to exact bribes and kickbacks from city and school district service providers. Through their illegal activities, they distorted the contract playing field, cheated the very citizens they purported to serve, stole education money from the children whose educations they were supposed to ensure, and lined their own pockets in the process.

Until the FBI got wind of what was going on, that is, and opened a case. Our investigation—which included confidential sources, undercover scenarios, financial record examinations, and witness interviews—collected plenty of evidence of wrongdoing and ultimately led to guilty pleas by the defendants.

Now a lot of this marries up to the popular depiction of the FBI agent. "Casey, you go contact confidential source in Progreso and see what's going on. Mickey, you set up a dummy school supply store and see if the Progreso officials try to bribe you. Reggie, you go talk to that cousin and see if you can persuade him to speak."

But one point doesn't make the cut in your average FBI drama.

"Johnstone, you check the school district invoices and compare them against the physical inventories that were conducted."

Huh? That's not an FBI agent, is it?

Let's go back to another FBI story that I shared back in February, about some California DMV employees who earned some extra money by helping a driving school owner get his clients licenses - no questions (including test questions) asked. That was a $50,000 fraud case - and you know that accountants were needed to look at that.

The FBI has described this aspect of its work:

Accountants have been woven into the fabric of the FBI since its creation in the summer of 1908, when a dozen bank examiners were included among the original force of 34 investigators. Today, around 15 percent of agents employed by the Bureau qualify as special agent accountants.

Non-agent accounting positions at the FBI date back to the early 1970s, when we created a cadre of accounting technicians to help agents working increasingly complex financial cases. During the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, the FBI’s ability to address complex, sophisticated financial investigations was elevated further with the addition of financial analysts to our ranks.

Post-9/11, the criminal landscape changed again with large-scale corporate frauds and a multitude of other complex financial schemes. And once again, we adapted by adding new resources and skills. One key element was the 2009 creation of a standardized, professional investigative support position known as a forensic accountant.

One forensic accountant described the importance of the profession to the FBI's mission:

Almost every investigative matter the Bureau is involved in has a financial nexus—it’s always about money. The forensic accountant can serve as a consultant/advisor to agents on financial and economic matters, assist in interviews—especially those involving financial aspects—and assist in identifying key records for subpoena requests or search warrants.

Whether you're talking about the Mafia or a foreign terrorist group, you can often find the group by looking at the money trail. Don't forget that Al Capone didn't end up in Alcatraz because of a murder conviction - income tax evasion brought him down.
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