SPECIAL TO THE WEB
Robert Tie, CFE, CFP
Contributing Editor, Fraud Magazine
Despite the global financial crisis, all seemed to be well at Dewey in 2008. But then cash flow began to drop, which eventually forced the big firm to declare bankruptcy — five years after the 2007 merger that created it. Thousands of Dewey employees lost their jobs, and creditors and investors were out hundreds of millions of dollars.
According to the May 14, 2012 article, Dewey's Bienenstock Discusses Law Firm's Demise, by Peter Lattman in The New York Times, "Several former Dewey partners presented prosecutors with evidence of potential financial improprieties."
After a lengthy investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) on March 6, 2014, indicted the former CEO, CFO, executive director and a lower-level manager of the by then-defunct law firm for intentionally issuing false financial statements. At the same time, the SEC filed a civil complaint against the same four employees. It also filed a separate complaint against seven of their colleagues. The CEO, CFO, executive director and manager pleaded not guilty to all criminal and civil charges, and their seven colleagues all pleaded guilty to the civil charges against them.
One of the seven who pleaded guilty is Francis Canellas, the firm's former finance director, who agreed to testify for the prosecution. According to Canellas' plea and cooperation agreement with the DOJ, he and the other 10 defendants falsified the firm's financial statements to fool lenders and investors into thinking Dewey was profitable, even though it wasn't. Multiple insurance companies, deceived by the doctored records, invested $150 million in a private Dewey bond offering, and three banks gave the firm a $100 million line of credit.
"What Canellas told prosecutors about his co-defendants is as yet unproven," Sizemore says. "But we can regard as fact every fraudulent action he admitted taking himself. Each of them is a mirror image of actions taken in virtually every financial statement fraud I've investigated or studied."
As happens in many businesses, Dewey wrote off some of its receivables as bad debt. But the prosecutors and Canellas said that when it became clear the firm wouldn't meet its revenue projections, the defendants fraudulently reversed those write-offs.
"If I were called in to perform a fraud risk assessment at Dewey before the fraud was discovered, I'd want to know how much working capital the firm had and what covenants they had to meet to keep their funding in force," Sizemore says. "And I'd wonder how that firm could pay so many high-priced lawyers, finance its operations and pay its loans — all during a recession."
TIPS FOR FRAUD EXAMINERS
- Ask as many questions as necessary, and evaluate the answers for reasonability. "If you don't understand something on a financial statement, or it seems unusual, ask for support documentation," Sizemore says. "Test it for reasonableness in terms of your understanding of the company's expenses and income and the business environment in its industry and locality. If your reasonableness test reveals any red flags, perform ratio analyses. Be sure to compare the company with at least two others or with industry-wide values. Company statistics by industry — number of employees, sales and so on — are available online, and I've used them in numerous investigations. Some are available only by subscription, while others are free."
- Be flexible. Sizemore says no single ratio fits all situations. So choose a ratio appropriate for your client's industry and type of business. If you can't find one, use a universally applicable calculation, such as days' sales outstanding in accounts receivable. He also notes that ratios don't prove fraud, but they can help you detect fraud that otherwise might not be evident.
- Stay on track. "To conceal red flags, fraudsters will tell you that the support documentation you want isn't available," Sizemore says. "Most red flags have legitimate causes, such as management's inability to run the business effectively. But the only way you can tell is to check the support documentation," he adds.