Financial Sleuth Clues into Ulster's Money Mysteries; the Recent Wave of Financial Scandals Has Done Much to Raise the Profile of Forensic Accountants. ADRIENNE McGILL Talks to One of Northern Ireland's Top Corporate Fraud Investigators

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Byline: ADRIENNE McGILL

WORKING in forensics is not for the faint-hearted. The word conjures up images of pathologists up to their elbows in the blood, gore and guts of corpses.

But it's not a term confined to the macabre end of the medical profession - forensic experts also operate in accountancy.

With the recent flow of corporate scandals involving big names such as Enron and Worldcom, forensic accountants have never been in greater demand.

They have become corporate sleuths poring over company accounts in the search for buried bodies and examining their innards once unearthed. When a corporate fraudster or embezzler attempts to hide their crimes through a series of complex financial manoeuvres, it's up to the forensic accountant to dig through the entrails of the corporate corpse, fraud or financial dispute and investigate what went wrong and the consequences that flowed from it.

The forensic accountant has to combine investigative skills with the ability to explain in simple terms detailed technical matters in court.

Such is the expertise of Catherine Harrison. She is a successful and immaculately groomed Belfast-based accountant responsible for unmasking corporate crooks behind complex money scams.

The 33-year-old mother-of-two is one of Northern Ireland's top fraud busters. She has been involved in investigating everything from company swindles worth hundreds of thousands of pounds to tracking down the ill- gotten gains of Northern Ireland's criminal underworld.

Catherine is in charge of PriceWaterhouseCooper's forensic services in Northern Ireland and Scotland - the investigative wing of the accounting giant.

With more than 11 years experience with the firm, she heads up a team of 12 specialists based in Belfast - one of the biggest anti-fraud teams in Europe.

While jokes about accountants used to revolve around how boring they are, Catherine is quick to point out that her division is the exciting end of the profession.

"We definitely are. Traditionally, accountancy has been viewed as quite boring and staid. Primarily, it was about recurring work - you did people's financial statements or tax returns on a rolling basis every year - that is quite repetitive.

"With forensics, you are using accountancy and auditing skills, but, to that, you are adding investigative skills. That involves a healthy scepticism and curiosity to find out the truth. It is about looking for the evidence to support what we are saying in a court room setting or backing up what we say to clients with facts.''

It's a staggering fact, but, in Northern Ireland, fraud by management and employees has become a greater threat to business than any other economic issue.

According to research by PwC, between 2000-2002, nearly 40 per cent of the Province's biggest private and public organisations were the victims of economic crime, with three-quarters of all offences committed by management and employees. Each organisation lost on average pounds 29,000 over the period, with the biggest reported loss topping pounds 500,000. Only 29 per cent of the organisations successfully recovered more than half of their losses from fraud, reflecting the higher incidence of internal frauds where the value of damages is often difficult to establish.

In addition to white-collar crime, an increasing number of criminals are attempting to introduce the proceeds of crime into legitimate financial markets. In Northern Ireland, money laundering is on the increase, with banks and financial advisers often targets of criminals attempting to filter "dirty money" into the system.

Such is the extent of financial crime in Northern Ireland that PwC hosted a conference in Belfast earlier this year to highlight the issue with Carol Sergeant, managing director of the Financial Services Authority, delivering the keynote speech.

"Because of the amount of criminal activity that goes on in Northern Ireland from a money laundering perspective we are market leaders in terms of working with the police and undertaking multi-million pound money laundering investigations,'' says Catherine. …