Most people never find their true vocation in life. Even fewer know what they want to do by the green age of eight. Yet, there are some people who are blessed with clarity without spending years wandering the globe subjecting themselves to all sorts of weird and wonderful jobs. Or worse, undergoing mind-numbing psychometric tests to find their ideal profession.
James Trimbach is one of the lucky few who knew exactly where he wanted to be and what he wanted to be by age eight. This is possibly thanks to the inspiration his father gave him.His father was and FBI agent.
Trimbach is an instructor at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He is also a certified public accountant.
The FBI has a fast-track route for accountants, so at the tender age of 24 armed with a CPA qualification and a college degree, Trimbach reached his holy grail.
Without an accounting degree, the youngest you can be to get into the FBI is 26.
When asked what other career he would have gone for had he not been successful at the FBI, he does not falter for a second. ‘Had I not been fortunate in getting into the FBI, I probably would have pursued some other law enforcement, perhaps secret service, or some other federal investigation unit,’ he explains.
Trimbach spent his first 15 years as an FBI agent investigating cases, hunting down criminals, making arrests and all the other adrenaline-inducing events portrayed in many a Hollywood flick.
During this time he had to move around the various FBI bases. This, however, was something he was used to. He spent much of his youth moving between the US East Coast cities due to his father’s job.
Catching white-collar criminals
Nowadays he leads a more sedentary life in Quantico, Virginia, where he instructs budding FBI agents on how to detect white-collar financial crime. And although he loves the challenge of educating FBI graduates to detect fraud and money laundering, he clearly misses ‘the thrill of the hunt … and seeing justice is served’.
So what drives an FBI agent with an accounting degree? It sounds a tad cliched, but he confesses he ‘wants to do some good in the world – you know, put the bad guys in jail, so to speak’.
Despite his obvious dedication and commitment, he has no illusions about the state of money laundering and corporate fraud, or its total eradication.
Trimbach said: ‘There’s always, always going to be money laundering. It’s the active effect of whatever the criminal activity is.’
But, he is clear about the ways to minimise the phenomena. ‘The key is to educate people in private industry, to share information to the extent law will allow.
‘If we’re going to combat money laundering, we’ve all got to work together. We’ve got to ensure institutions comply with regulatory statutes and reporting requirements. And they do for the most part.’
Fighting money laundering
But money laundering is on the increase. The International Monetary Fund estimates that the amount of money laundering generated on an annual basis ranges from 2 to 5% of the world’s gross domestic product. This amounts to a figure somewhere between $600bn and $1.8 trillion.
Technical advancements in financial systems, the internet and globalisation have done little to stem the flow of ‘dirty money’ that often underpins more serious crimes than fraud. The tragic events of 11 September 2001 put that into perspective.
The FBI ‘has changed a lot over the years. It’s certainly changed since September 11. No matter what the crime – drugs or terrorism, for instance – there’s always, always a financial aspect’, Trimbach says.
Terrorism and drug-related crime aside, corporate fraud is just as serious.
It affects every aspect of life, he emphasises.
‘Money laundering and fraud hurts the economy by reducing tax revenue and establishing underground economies which can destabilise financial institutions and seriously hurt emerging market countries,’ says Trimbach.
The startling collapse of the US energy giant Enron, the disintegration of one of the world’s leading audit firms Andersen and this month’s accounting scandal at US telecoms goliath WorldCom have all taken their toll on world equity markets, investor confidence and the credibility of the financial services market.
Accountants, in particular, have been at the forefront of many of the attacks.
‘As for what the role of an accountant is in combating fraud, it’s a hot topic. Opinions are constantly changing as to what should be done. What is the role? Should they (Andersen) have done something else with the Enron case? I don’t know. It’s certainly highlighted the case as to what exactly is the role of an accountant in the fight against fraud,’ muses Trimbach.
On a brighter note for accountants, it is clear their expertise is crucial in the battle against rising levels of fraud. It’s how to channel the expertise of accountants that is creating the stumbling blocks.
Whether to include a fraud detection clause in the auditing process is a raging debate on an international level. It has been for a number of years but still no consensus has been reached.
The US’ American Institute of Certified Public Accountants has recently issued proposals to include such a clause in its auditing standards. The AICPA is hopeful that these proposals will go part way to improving the chances of auditors to detect material mis-statements due to fraud in an audit.
But Trimbach sees it as a case of back to basics. ‘Whatever the crime, it’s back to the traditional – follow the money. That’s why traditionally the FBI want accountants.
They want that background in expertise in looking at and analysing financial records. Accountants like to document the heck out of everything. You can find some real gems that way,’ he explains.
Trimbach spends a portion of his time lecturing staff at financial institutions and has given a number of talks to the AICPA. The one thing he consistently reiterates is to be mindful of the symptoms of fraud, as fraud itself is an elusive thing.
‘When you have a murder, there’s a body, a pool of blood, maybe. When you have fraud, you just have symptoms. You can detect what those symptoms are; financial statement fraud, for example, you can do some simple analytical tests to show that maybe employees are stealing your inventory,’ he explains.
With money laundering, the same process applies, says Trimbach. If an accountant working at a large organisation notices that the company has two or three bank accounts in a tax haven, for example, pertinent questions ought to follow: such as ‘why does it need accounts there?’, ‘why are cheques payable to cash?’ and ‘why does the company have a shell company associated with it?
‘Those indications don’t necessarily mean anything, but it’s potentially a symptom of money laundering or fraud,’ he says.
But it would appear the UK has more sophisticated rules as far as disclosure is concerned. And here Trimbach hails the UK system over that of the US.
‘I was doing a bit of research recently to see the differences between what a CPA and a chartered accountant can do if they’re auditing a company where they find traces or indications of money laundering. And what they can do is significantly different to what a chartered accountant can do, and I like what you guys can do over here,’ he enthuses.
Here in the UK, if an accountant suspects money laundering or fraud, he or she is compelled by law to notify not just bosses, but law enforcement authorities.
In the US if an accountant turns to law enforcement because of suspicions of fraud, he could be sued or lose his practitioner’s licence. ‘If they were to detect money laundering or fraud, it’s supposed to go up the chain of the corporate ladder, one level higher than where the suspected fraud is.
Where do you turn to?
‘But how do you know how pervasive the fraud is? You may have to go to the chairman but how do you know he’s not involved in the fraud. You can’t go to the FBI and say “I resign from this audit and I think there’s something you should know about it”,’ explains Trimbach.
But despite Trimbach’s praise for the UK’s disclosure rules, UK accountants are still not pulling their weight, according to the National Criminal Intelligence Service.
Last year NCIS reported that out of a total of 18,408 suspicious transactions reported, a mere 77 were made by accountants.
Still, as Trimbach says: ‘At least here in the UK it’s a step in the right direction.’
Following the 11 September terrorist attacks in the US, President Bush pushed through significant changes to law and provisions concerning money laundering. It resulted in the USA Patriot Act of 2001, which is aimed at deterring and punishing terrorist acts.
But after much scrutiny, Trimbach says that he had not found anything in the Act that would improve disclosure rules for accountants in the US.
‘Nothing’s due to change in the US. Congress passed the USA Patriot Act of 2001, which is in direct correlation to the terrorism, but I didn’t see anything in there that is going to change the rule,’ he says resignedly.
Perhaps, the accounting scandal embroiling WorldCom, so soon after the collapse of Enron and the prosecution of Andersen, is the long-awaited wake-up call the US needs to bring the expertise of accountants into the fight against financial crime.
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