By Jenniffer Weigel, Tribune Newspapers
January 5, 2013
Most people don't start their day combing the newspaper for headlines about white-collar felons. But for Kelly Richmond Pope, it's just part of the job as a forensic accountant, and one she shares with students at DePaul University, where she is an associate professor in the School of Accountancy and Management Information Systems.
Pope describes forensic accounting as "a combination of accounting, auditing, psychology, criminology and a dose of being nosy." She was an assistant professor of forensic accounting at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for four years before moving to Chicago to work for KPMG, an international company that provides audit, tax and advisory services.
In addition to her teaching at DePaul, where she has been since 2006, she is an independent consultant for companies trying to identify, prevent and understand why people engage in white-collar crimes. She also is the co-founder of Loop Learning Solutions, a company that creates innovative education media products that focus on fraud and ethics.
"I tell students all the time, 'Your idea of what you think a white-collar felon is, really isn't the reality,'" Pope said. "Most of the people I interview are really nice, everyday people. They could be anyone walking down the street."
Part of her curriculum involves interactive digital teaching tools that include many interviews with felons.
"I hear from students all the time that seeing these criminals tell their stories really has an impact," she said. "It really makes them think twice about how they live their life. And by getting into the mind of that person, it helps others learn to spot it, so it's useful to identify the crime as well as prevent it in the future."
Pope says she is fascinated by the minds and actions of those who commit financial fraud.
"I (interviewed) one guy who profited $33 million from insider trading," she said. "I spoke to him before he went to prison. … I went to his New York penthouse. It was 10,000 square feet in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I spent the day with him learning what he did and how he did it. And I asked, 'Did you think it was wrong? Did you think you were doing the right thing?' … And he said, 'You know, I really never thought about that.' It was so simple to do, and he did it for years without getting caught. My biggest point to my students is: This could be you. If you think that it can't be you, you will be more likely to make one of these mistakes, and I will be interviewing you later in my career."
Pope lives in Hyde Park with her husband, Lorence, and their children, Vivien, 3, and Evan, 7. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a forensic accountant?
A: I grew up in North Carolina, and when I was 12 or 13 my neighbor was a banker and went to prison, and I always thought it was really interesting, but I was so young I didn't know what was really going on. So 20 years later, I was doing some research, and I found out about this field called forensic accounting. It was the perfect blend of accounting, law, criminology, psychology and auditing, and I just liked the … multidisciplinary approach to research and teaching. I think everything sort of goes together.
Q: What case are you working on now?
A: The one I'm working on right now is with one of the whistle-blowers from the Allen Stanford Ponzi scheme. Allen Stanford was the second-largest Ponzi scheme after Bernie Madoff. While Madoff's was $50 billion, Allen Stanford out of Texas was $7 billion. (The whistle-blower) knew something was going on, but he didn't know what. But what I find interesting is the life of a whistle-blower. It's fascinating just how tough it is. I think, on the one hand, we see all this legislation supporting whistle-blowers, saying if you come forward we will give you an incentive and money if your case is valid, but to get to that point is really tough. We've been talking almost every day, but just seeing how people don't trust you once you're a whistle-blower is interesting. … The case is still ongoing.
Q: What's the most common type of crime you see in your research?
A: Abusing the corporate credit card. It starts small — a lunch or filling up the gas tank — and then it gets easier and easier to keep doing it. I interviewed a woman who went to jail for that. It sounds small, but this woman's total crime was a half-million dollars. Creating fake vendors is another one; setting up P.O. boxes so your company sends a check there, and then you pick the check up and you deposit it. Some people steal for health reasons too; maybe you have a sick family member, and you have access to write checks. That seems to be something that people feel more justified to do.
Q: Are certain personalities more likely to commit financial fraud?
A: For the most part, these are really nice, everyday people. … There are a lot of regular people going to jail for small, medium and large things. It seems like it can happen to anyone: That door is open, and you walk through it.
Q: What did you want to be when you were 13?
A: My dad was a professor, and my mother was a guidance school counselor and a teacher, so I always wanted to be a professor.
Q: What's the best advice you ever got?
A: Find your own niche. My dad (Tyronza) told me to create your own value and then others will find you valuable. He died in 1999.
Q: Does your work have an impact on your family?
A: Yes. My son is 7, and the other day he said, "Mom, there was some money on the counter, and I took it. Am I going to jail?" So he understands that you need to try to do the right thing. … But it's not something that makes great dinner conversation, like, "Hey, everyone, I went to a prison today to do an interview for work."
Q: Does the corruption ever make you feel hopeless?
A: No, but I do feel that we have to educate people differently, which is one of the reasons why I've created interactive cases for students to use in class from my research, because you have to get in the minds of people differently than we are. There's a professional organization called the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, and every two years they do this national study on all the frauds in the country. … What you find in these studies, on average in the past three years, about 67 percent of the embezzlement cases have been (committed by) women. Rita Crundwell (the former Dixon, Ill., comptroller who pleaded guilty to embezzling $53 million from the city) is a prime example. That is the No. 1 municipal embezzlement case in the country.
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