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Strategies for Mitigating Municipal Employee Fraud

By Scott P. Johnson, CPA, CGMA

The second article in a series for municipal executives: Avoiding the Headlines

By Scott P. Johnson, CPA, CGMA
Partner, State & Local Government, Advisory Services

As a public official for more than 24 years, I continuously strived to implement best practices, internal controls and policies and procedures to mitigate fraud, waste and abuse. Being a municipal finance officer responsible for literally billions of dollars, there were times when I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about what could happen or what I may not know that could be occurring that could put the organization at risk. Fortunately throughout my municipal career the organizations I served did not experience headlines due to significant fraud. We had the appropriate “tone at the top” and practiced effective measures throughout the organization to mitigate potential fraud. However, from time-to-time, we would uncover the occasional lapse of an employee’s good judgement and detect inappropriate use of government funds, such as; improper procurement credit card use for personal purposes, time cards reporting that fraudulently claimed hours worked in excess of actual hours worked, and fictitious reimbursement claims for travel.

Employee fraud is a significant problem across industries and is faced by organizations of all types, sizes, locations, and industries. While employee fraud in private organizations rarely merits a mention in the local paper, the same fraud in a government agency will have editors competing to write the splashiest headlines and garner the highest reader traffic. It is critical for such organizations to maintain a positive reputation. Reputational risk can carry long-lasting damage in monetary losses, regulatory issues, and overall risk exposure. Frankly, all types of fraud are on the rise, and municipalities need an effective fraud mitigation strategy in place to protect against reputational and monetary harm.

Just a few recent examples of municipal fraud that have had significant press coverage and put the respective organizations in a challenging position: In 2014 officials in St. Louis County, IL, uncovered a $3.4 million embezzlement that escaped detection for more than six years. According to officials, a County Health Agency Division Manager overcharged for IT computer and technical services (unbeknownst to the County, the Division Manager owned the technology company). Unfortunately, the day after the suspected embezzlement was detected by County officials, the employee committed suicide, according to the County Medical Examiner.

The largest known municipal fraud in US history was uncovered in 2012 at the City of Dixon, IL. This embezzlement scheme of almost $54 million over a 22 year period was perpetrated by its Comptroller, Rita Crundwell, who used the proceeds to finance her quarter horse ranch business and lavish lifestyle. She was convicted and pleaded guilty to the crimes and is currently serving a 20 year sentence. Another recent case of an alleged fraud allegation is currently under trial in the Los Angeles Superior Court in which ex-Pasadena city employee, Danny Wooten and co-defendants are due back in court for arraignment on April 1, 2016, according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office. The criminal case involves allegations that more than $6 million in city money was embezzled over a decade in which Wooten is suspected of creating false invoices for the underground utility program between 2004 and March 2014.

Many factors can contribute to fraud, but the key factors are the improper segregation of duties, lack of management review, maintaining undocumented procedures, common exception processing, trust without verification and validation, and lack of accountability and monitoring. Employing proper risk assessments of events that could prevent, delay, or increase the costs of achieving organizational objectives and implementing a risk management plan not only ensure compliance, but strategically safeguard on organization against fraud. There are three important steps to earning a good night’s sleep.

1. Fraud Risk Assessment - understanding the organization as a whole and individual business units will lead to the most comprehensive risk management plan. Understand how resources flow as well as internal environments and processes. Conduct interviews, make observations and review all factors. Identify the possible and probable fraud schemes for all resource flows.

2. Prevention – “Tone at the Top” is critical. Inspiring employees to follow ethical standards starts with the tone at the executive level and must trickle down through the management level and ultimately throughout the entire organization. The organization needs to know that unethical practices will not be tolerated and when detected, will be dealt with in a timely and effective manner. One measure to communicate the “tone” is writing a fraud policy in concert with the employee conduct handbook will ensure the message is designed into the orientation, onboarding, and training process. Conduct management reviews, provide whistleblower channels, and communicate often with key business unit leaders, who in turn should communicate with their staff regarding fraud prevention, detection, and correction.

3. Detection - while assessment and prevention will create a strong defense against fraud, it is still important to seek out other measures to detect fraud that may not have been included in the fraud risk assessment plan. Only three percent (3%) of all fraud is discovered by accident or the good luck of the right person in the right place. Only six percent (6%) of fraud is discovered through account reconciliation. Clearly we cannot simply rely on these detection methods. In addition to account reconciliation and keeping your ears open, creating channels for detection are of the utmost importance. Eleven percent (11%) of fraud discoveries are due to an internal audit. Return to step one by assessing and re-assessing fraud risk regularly. Conduct meaningful management reviews on-time. Twelve percent (12%) of fraud detection were the result of properly conducted management reviews. Finally, be sure to enforce an open door policy and a culture of interest in detection and reporting. Fifty-four percent (54%) of all fraud detection comes through insider tips. Ensuring there are proper procedures in place to accept these tips is paramount when designing and especially, implementing the fraud management and detection plan.

Deceitful misconduct among employees significantly damages reputations, negatively affects resources, and limits the ability of any organization to effectively serve the consumer and their community. Following this roadmap on how to respond to and prevent employee fraud will not only protect the organization and its key objectives but will lead to an easier night’s sleep - even in the face of increasing fraud across all industries.

This article is only a small representation of the material presented during MGO’s “Case in Point” presentation at the 2016 CSMFO Conference. Special recognition to Ruthe Holden, Internal Audit Manager at the City of Pasadena for her contribution to the “Case in Point” presentation. Contact Scott Johnson at if you have any questions or comments. Comments and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and may not reflect the positions, opinions, or beliefs of the CSFMO or MGO and should not be construed or interpreted as such.

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