There’s an old saying that the wheels of justice grind slowly, but they grind very fine. In the accounting world the wheels of justice don’t even start to turn until the criminal justice wheels have ground everyone into powder.
Effective this past August and November two of the key former partners from KPMG involved in the PCAOB inspection cheating scandal surrendered their licenses.
The sad tale of Ross Ulbricht and his on-line drug bazaar called Silk Road is a good study of the outer limits of how far rationalization can carry a person.
It is also a frightening illustration of Jeremiah 17:9. From the New International Version, ponder:
The heart is deceitful above all thing and beyond cure. Who can understand it?
Considering the tale of Silk Road is useful for accountants wanting to learn about the outer fringe of the internet and he investigative power of the federal government, believers who would like an illustration of the frightening level of deceit that lives in the human heart, and anyone else wanting to learn more about the dark worlds that normal people will never see.
My posts are gathered into two collections on my other blog, Outrun Change:
One thing I’ve learned while being in leadership at my church is that a conflict that appears simple to outsiders is usually far more complicated and messy and ugly than it appears, with blame for a conflict sometimes belonging to the party that appears innocent.
I’m slowly catching on that maybe that idea sometimes applies to massive financial fiascos. (Yeah, yeah, I know. I usually catch on really slow.)
Who is at fault?
Back in January 2008 a trader, Jérôme Kerviel, engaged in €50B of unauthorized trades for Société Générale and hid his trades. That’s fifty billion euros. He admits to making fake entries to hide his admittedly unauthorized trades.
Unwinding the trades cost the bank €4.9B.
I recall at the time that the story line was he was a rogue, a scoundrel, etc., doing all this by himself, etc., single handedly pulling off a huge scam, etc, cleverly wending his way between those tight internal controls, etc.
Previously, Mr. Kerviel was tried and convicted on criminal charges. His initial sentence was five years, which was reduced to two years (I think it was 2 but maybe was 3).
He served five months in prison, according to the following article.
Well, multiple parts of the French judicial system are saying that allocating the blame is a bit more complicated.
The bank will pay a mere $185M to settle claims brought by OCC, CFPB (Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, the new creation of the Dodd-Frank legislation), and LA city attorney.
This scheme involved customer-facing employees opening fake bank accounts in the name of existing customers without the customer’s permission. Another variation is opening a fake account in the name of a nonexistent customer. Article says sometimes money would be transferred from a customer’s account into the new, fake account with occasional NSF fees because there wasn’t enough money in the legitimate account to cover legitimate checks.
The best stories to be told as a result of the massive data leak cannot yet be written.
The really smart people use multiple layers of shell companies to hide assets. When laundering money, one should move assets through a series of companies, with each subsequent jump being anonymous.
A long time ago I attended a continuing education class helping CPAs understand fraud. Why are such classes required? So that, hopefully, maybe, CPAs will be able to recognize fraud when it stares them in the face during the course of an audit.
During the class, the instructor went off script and explained to us how to launder money.
(Cross-posted from my other blog,Nonprofit Update, because the accountants reading this blog will find this story just as funny as I did.)
You probably know scammers have a new scheme of falsely claiming to be from the IRS. Their spiel is you’re just about to be arrested for failing to pay back taxes, the police are on the way to your home, but you can avoid going to jail today by settling up right now by sending money on a prepaid debit card or wire transfer.
Mr. Barrett called back to the number provided in a robocall. The person answering spoke poor English and sounded like he was calling from a boiler room.
It is scary to see the power of rationalization. We humans can exert great effort to persuade ourself that wrong is right. With enough effort, we can persuasively argue that wrong is a positive good, the noble alternative.
It is unsettling to me when I see a client deeply believe that tax or accounting fraud is perfectly legitimate and I am the one who is in the wrong to suggest otherwise. Worrisome is a watching a friend who believes that hurtful or destructive or nasty or evil behavior is Godly. Even more upsetting is when I catch my brain in full rationalization mode.
No, I’m not about to give any examples from clients, friends, or my life.
Unfortunately, we have a sad public example of rationalization racing at full power (sad pun intended).
Some background on Lance Armstrong’s massive doping schemes
Many public sources report that Lance Armstrong has been found to use performance enhancing drugs for a very long time. He won seven consecutive Tour de France races.
According to Wikipedia, in 2012 he received a life-time world ban on all competitive events in all sports. His seven wins were revoked. He was found to have engaged in sophisticated doping schemes for many years.
How many failures in the smell test can you identify in this story, which was published by New York Magazine?
In a few years of trading*, a 17-year old* High School junior has cleared $72 million* in profits from a diverse strategy* of penny stocks*, oil futures, and mid-cap stocks. He owns a BMW and has already rented an apartment in Manhattan that his parents won’t let him live in*. He lives with his parents in the same place they’ve lived for a while*. To validate his story, a fact-checker looked at a* Chase bank statement* that shows a $72M balance*. The stock whiz now says he met with the fact-checker “for about 10 seconds” to view the one statement*.
Update, forgot this part: After one of the interviews, he was going to an appointment with some guy who wanted to give him* a $150M investment* to start a hedge fund* the day he turns 18*.
My previous post described a comment by Sam Antar during his CPE session that the fines arising from of a long list of financial fiascos are essentially a tax on illegal behavior.
He made another comment in that session that I wanted to describe in detail. He said these frauds are a cancer destroying capitalism.
I had opportunity to visit with him a few weeks ago and asked him to expand on this idea. I will summarize what we discussed.
Cancer destroying capitalism
He indicated the foundation of capitalism is reliability of financial information. If you can trust financial information you read then we can do business with each other.
He says the extent of frauds we have seen are leading people to lose faith in financial information. That leads to losing faith in their counterparties. Therefore people have less trust. In financial terms that means the risk premiums for transactions go up. The interest rate built into a transaction increases and the return drops.