Profile: Chris Dickson - Enemy or friend?
When Chris Dickson started work as an investigator at the Serious Fraud Office in 1988, he did not imagine that some ten years later he would be grappling with the intricacies of the audit process.
But in 1997, after a successful interview for the top job at the Joint Disciplinary Scheme, the accountancy profession’s senior watchdog, that is just what he had to start doing.
His job is to investigate the role of accountants and accountancy firms in cases of public concern – principally where investors have lost money as a result of a company’s collapse or mismanagement.
High profile cases have included investigating the role of directors and auditors in the Barings and Maxwell scandals.
If he finds there is a case to answer, Dickson puts the case before an independent Joint Disciplinary Tribunal, which has the power to impose fines and expel people from the profession. The biggest penalty ever imposed was on audit firm Coopers & Lybrand for its role in the Maxwell affair – fines and costs totalled over #3m.
Audit is not the snazziest arm of accountancy – many strive to get out of it in favour of more glamourous sounding work. Yet it is understanding of the audit process, says Dickson, that is vital to any accountant considering a career in the field of forensics.
Another aspect of forensic investigation in which Dickson, a qualified barrister, had to retrain his own thought processes was in the method of questioning. As a barrister, one is ingrained never to ask a question to which one does not already know the answer. That is not so in the cases the JDS investigates.
But, Dickson says, accountants are particularly adept at this line of questioning. ‘In my experience accountants are particularly good at interviews because they are not taught like barristers to not ask questions they don’t know the answer to,’ says Dickson.
Dickson studied law at Cambridge. He chose to adapt his skills to the forensic side of the law. Indeed what he learnt at the SFO probably got him the job at the JDS.
‘It taught me a good deal about investigations. Of course that is very much at the heart at what one does at the JDS. And secondly it introduced me to working with accountants, which I hadn’t done before. In both respects it was valuable. ‘And perhaps a third one, it taught me about working in teams. We do all our cases on a team basis … at the SFO and at the JDS,’ he explains.
One of the major changes the SFO made during Dickson’s time there was to bring accountants onto their staff because of the growing forensic skills in accountancy firms. The vast majority of SFO cases by definition concern financial markets where accountants increasingly play a central role.
In the past year alone Dickson has come face to face with many partners and employees at accountancy’s giants, like Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, the world’s largest firm.
As for being the enemy, he would rather not think of himself as such.
‘Inevitably one sometimes has a different point of view about a case from that which a person being investigated does, that’s the nature of this sort of work. I very much hope I’m not viewed as the enemy by anybody. I certainly don’t view any of them as the enemy,’ he urges.
In fact, Dickson often finds himself in the situation of having to explain to those who query tribunal outcomes that it is not he who imposes the costs or penalties.
‘There are no emotions attached to penalties at all. It is very important not to be seen as either triumphalist or defeatist for the regulatory process,’ says Dickson.
As executive counsel of the JDS, Dickson investigates a case to determine if it is necessary to lay complaints against an individual or firm. It is then up to the JDS’ executive committee to choose members of an independent tribunal to preside over the case.
Although he has no complaints about the financial support Dickson gets from the two professional bodies, the ICAEW and ICAS, which currently maintain the disciplinary board, investigations remain extremely protracted and are invariably conducted years after the incident took place.
‘The processes can’t be speeded up. If we had unlimited resources, then yes,’ he says.
The main reason for most delays is because many cases seen by the JDS involve other types of legal proceedings, such as criminal proceedings or the disqualification of company directors. Such parallel proceedings tend to take priority over disciplinary cases.
These delays however are not a source of irritation for him. It would seem that in this business the adage of patience being a virtue is an understatement; it is a necessity.
‘All of these cases inevitably take time. It seems attractive to say it can be done in an instant, but of course they can’t,’ says Dickson.
And despite the office’s location in the heart of London’s historic East End and a stone’s throw away from Liverpool Street station, they are nothing compared to the luxury of ICAEW’s Moorgate House and ICAS’ hi-tech new offices in Edinburgh’s Haymarket.
But, Dickson is of the old school. Not one for frills and fancies, he gets on with the work at hand. The cramped quarters are stacked knee-high with the lever arch files of at least ten ongoing cases; neither the ageing furniture nor the 1970s decor appear to detract from his dedication and attention to the job.
‘I enjoy this line of work enormously. I find it difficult to see myself not doing something related either to discipline regulation or the criminal law. It is challenging from an interest point of view. And it’s intellectually challenging. I genuinely enjoy the people I work with; the friends often act against me as well as those who work with me. It’s what I’ve done for so long,’ he replies reflectively.
Dickson’s contract runs out next year. The Independent Disciplinary Board – a new board working as part of a new regulatory system – will eventually replace the JDS. It retains only one current member of the JDS’ executive committee, Sir James McKinnon, chairman of Trafficmaster and Discovery Trust.
And in an ironic twist, one of its new members, Chris Laine, is a former senior partner of Coopers & Lybrand, which has been a major focus of the JDS’s work because of the firm’s involvement in scandals such as Maxwell, Barings and Resort Hotels.
Whether Dickson moves over to the IDB remains to be seen. But it is clear that together with the new Accountancy Foundation, a system that will end decades of self-regulation, Dickson and his teams of investigators have helped greatly in the drive to improve accountability and expose wrongdoing and incompetence within the profession.
JDS’ website is at castigator.org.uk (Dickson dreamed up the name).
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A FRAUD INVESTIGATOR
The nature of the job is there is no such thing as a typical day.
I like the fact that a day which begins with discussions on a new brochure, moves on to lunch with regulators interested in our expanding fraud unit can unexpectedly end in a late night meeting in Glasgow. A packaging company suspects a major payment fraud and believes it has identified the culprit who it intends to sack. I have to agree a strategy with our client and get our team going on the practicalities – fast. We need to secure the relevant documentation, inform the bank, interview the suspect and obtain freezing orders.
The work’s unpredictability is the attraction and I have a great collection of war stories – such as the investigation in West Africa for an oil company.
On arrival at the airport I saw a bomber take off and distant thuds confirmed we had landed in a war zone.
Arriving at our hotel I saw armed soldiers patrolling the streets and the receptionist informed us electricity would only be available for five hours a day. I was hoping to spot an unusual payment and could not believe my luck when the first entry in the cashbook showed a consultancy payment to the wife of a senior oil company official. It was the evidence the client needed. The next morning I was rudely awoken by security police for questioning but after an hour I was allowed to leave. That job had a satisfying ending.
Another still baffles the officials. A Far East bank phoned to ask if I could be with them the next day. $5m was missing from the accounts and although they were prepared to leave the investigation to local police and regulators, the bank’s brief was to establish whether it was theft or an accounting manipulation and had never existed. I established there had been a robbery. The police reached the same conclusion but their suspect had to be released when my information showed he was elsewhere at the crucial time. No one was arrested so somewhere there is a wealthy employee relaxing by his pool.
The lowly clerk with a flashy lifestyle is a classic giveaway. I once traced over #500,000 which had been siphoned off by a sales manager of a clothing manufacturer. He had left the country but none of his colleagues questioned how he had bought a business and run a Porsche on #10,000.
Meanwhile, it’s good to be in Glasgow where electricity isn’t rationed.’
– Andrew Durant is partner in charge of BDO Stoy Hayward’s fraud practice.