Gonzaga Accounting Students to Bring Justice for Fraud Victims
By Colleen Mallon with contributions from Sara Melendy
"When I learned of Gonzaga University's interest in working with law enforcement...I begged for the opportunity to participate. For me, this was a chance to achieve justice for my victims...The accounting students give my victims the forensic accounting reports needed to get full accountability from these suspects."
--Detective Stacey Carr, Spokane Police Department
Business students today increasingly crave opportunities that allow them to apply classroom theory to the real world. Starting this spring, students in Gonzaga's Master of Accountancy program are gaining this type of experience while helping the Spokane community through a new program called the Justice for Fraud Victims Project (JFVP).
This unique project is a partnership of law enforcement officials, Spokane County prosecutors, local Certified Fraud Examiners (CFEs) and Gonzaga students and faculty. Together, these groups are aiding victims of financial fraud in cases where a full forensic accounting investigation would otherwise be too costly and time consuming. Students are enrolled in a forensic accounting lab course at Gonzaga which assigns them to investigative teams that are supervised by faculty and mentors from the Spokane Chapter of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.
The vision for the project took shape last summer when K. Jill Bolton, Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington approached Dr. Gary Weber and Dr. Sara Melendy about using graduate accounting students to assist local victims of fraud with forensic accounting services. In the months that followed, Jill Bolton and Dr. Melendy recruited representatives from law enforcement, the Department of Justice, Gonzaga, and the Spokane Chapter of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) to form an initial advisory board. This board proposed an initial pilot class be taught by Dr. Melendy starting spring 2010.
Currently, there are four teams of three students that are investigating cases. These teams help establish the method by which a fraud was perpetrated and quantify the damages. To date, law enforcement agencies have referred five cases to the program, and that number is expected to increase as the semester progresses. Students were selected through an application process, and are held to the highest standards of confidentiality and professionalism. As Dr. Melendy commented, "...Students are expected to adhere to both the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners Code of Ethics and to the highest standards of personal integrity." Clearly, this work requires a high level of responsibility, and as Marie Rice, President of the Spokane Chapter of the ACFE explained, "The students have been very competent in their work and the mentors in the program have been very diligent in the oversight of that work."
For students, the project provides invaluable hands-on experience in forensic accounting. As one student described, "The best part is working on real-life situations and potentially helping people who have been hurt by fraud."Another student added, "I decided to take the course to have a tangible accomplishment through my academic experience...It's a lot of work, but it is rewarding and well worth the effort."
Additionally, the project aids fraud victims who might otherwise be unable to afford these services the opportunity to obtain justice for the financial harm they have suffered. As Stacey Carr, Detective with the Spokane Police Department explained, "When I learned of Gonzaga University's interest in working with law enforcement...I begged for the opportunity to participate. For me, this was a chance to achieve justice for my victims...The accounting students give my victims the forensic accounting reports needed to get full accountability from these suspects." Finally, the project provides a valuable resource for law enforcement agencies that would otherwise be unable to investigate these white collar crimes and establish a loss amount for prosecution. According to K. Jill Bolton, Assistant United States Attorney, Eastern District of Washington, "Law enforcement and prosecutors will now have more comprehensive forensic accounting products which they can use to bring the perpetrators of the fraud to justice."
So far, the project has been an unequivocal success. As Jill Bolton praised, "The faculty and students of Gonzaga University continue to surpass my greatest expectations about their ability to turn the simple idea of the JFVP into an actual forensic accounting program for the students and local fraud victims." Adds Lisa Jangaard, FBI Fraud Investigator and CFE mentor, "The Gonzaga students in the JFVP program are enthusiastic and conscientious. I have been impressed with their thoughtful review of case materials and their diligent efforts in processing and organizing evidence and then analyzing and assessing the same in a timely fashion."
Long term, Gonzaga would like to develop this program into a full Center for Forensic Accounting funded by grants, community groups, and private donors. As Dr. Melendy points out, "The program is consistent with Gonzaga University's mission statement, which calls on faculty and students to be 'people for others'." Ideally, a full-time staff member would oversee the student investigations, creating a permanent touchstone as the program progresses and evolves. As Dr. Gary Weber summarized, "We hope to leverage on the success of this project to develop a Center for Forensic Accounting, focusing on not only the continuance of the JFVP but on development of research in this area as well as resources to aid small businesses victimized by fraud in the Inland Northwest and across the United States."