Hunting the Big Cats of Fraud


Robert Tie, CFE, CFP

Part 1 of 2: HealthSouth Corp.

In the economic crime jungle, is one predator more rapacious than all others? If so, who is king of the fraud beasts?

Consider this. A staggering $1 million was the median loss for the 133 financial statement fraud cases tallied in the ACFE's 2014 Report to the Nations on Occupational Fraud and Abuse. A far smaller amount — $145,000 — was the median loss for all 1,483 fraud cases the Report covered.

Clearly, the executive who falsifies financial statements is king of the fraud beasts. Alton Sizemore, CFE, CPA, knows the species well and has hunted down several of its members. Sizemore, a former FBI special agent, is owner of Alton Sizemore and Associates and a consultant with Forensic Strategic Solutions — a national financial investigation firm with offices in Alabama and North Carolina. Over a career spanning more than 30 years — 25 of them with the FBI — he has investigated numerous financial statement frauds.

By interviewing the executives who committed those crimes he learned to recognize and understand their fraud motives, opportunities and rationalizations. Sizemore also became proficient in trend and ratio analysis of financial statements to detect potential signs of falsification. And by observing those entries most frequently falsified, he developed a strong sense of those supporting documents to scrutinize. This article, in two parts, discusses these investigative principles and techniques in relation to two major financial statement frauds.

Sizemore managed the 2003 FBI investigation of a $2.9 billion financial statement fraud at HealthSouth Corporation in Birmingham, Alabama. That probe led to the first prosecution of a CEO and a CFO under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) of 2002 for fraudulently misstating information on financial statements they had certified were accurate. The second case is currently in federal criminal court in Manhattan and concerns the alleged $250 million financial statement fraud at the now-defunct law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf LLP. It will be discussed in part 2.


In an earlier Fraud Magazine Special to the Web Sizemore described the case, the culprits and the investigative techniques the FBI used to uncover documentary evidence of this fraud.

HealthSouth's book-cooking scheme persisted for 17 years before its discovery led to the prosecution and conviction of the 21 senior managers who conspired to perpetrate and hide it. How could the auditors not detect such a massive fraud? Through their repeated failure to look behind the financial statements to see whether they were accurate.

"For example," Sizemore says, "the company's balance sheet showed $300 million was in clearing between one bank and another. But the money didn't exist. The auditors never found out, though. They neglected to check again later to see if that money actually had cleared."

At HealthSouth, the fraudsters' motivation for misstating the financials was to keep stockholders from learning about slumping profits. Their opportunity was the external auditors' ongoing failure to stand up to the HealthSouth CFO who intimidated them. And their rationalization was that eventually the company would generate enough actual profit to make up for the phony revenue planted in the current financials. That fantasy never materialized, though, and the whole scheme unraveled when persistent shareholder pressure led to an investigation.

Both the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) went after the fraudsters at HealthSouth. Its then-CFO William Owens pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with investigators in exchange for a lighter sentence. He wore a tiny recording device in his necktie when he met with CEO Richard Scrushy, whom he had told the FBI was the leader of the fraud.

Read more about the HealthSouth investigation in the full Special to the Web article on