Trained to Follow Money Trail

By Olson, Thomas | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, January 31, 2008 | Go to article overview

Trained to Follow Money Trail


Olson, Thomas, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Whoever thinks accounting is just a boring blur of numbers hasn't heard of forensic accounting.

A six-month accounting probe into a local consumer-goods maker, for instance, turned up almost $10 million in phony expenses over several years from its top three executives. The vice president of sales claimed $3,800 in expenses one week, for example, at TGI Friday's, when the credit card slip showed only a $47 tab, said forensic accountant Jim Fellin.

"After we obtained his credit card records, his ultimate excuse was, 'I had drinks at the bar, plus tips, and that was the difference,'" said Fellin, a 21-year veteran and managing director of Nottingham Group, a forensic accounting firm Downtown.

The budding field has spawned programs at two Pittsburgh universities, Carlow and Duquesne.

Carlow University in Oakland instituted a 4-year, undergraduate degree program in forensic accounting in fall 2005. It's the only school in Pennsylvania, and one of the few in the nation, to do so, said program founder and chair Diane Matthews.

"Forensic accounting is the Sherlock Holmes of accounting, applying investigative techniques to accounting and financial matters," Matthews said.

Carlow's brochures define the field as "detection and prevention of financial fraud and white-collar criminal activities."

"When I got into it in 1987, there wasn't even a name for it," said Fellin, who teaches two of Carlow's courses.

One of his engagements in the early 1990s involved deciphering Arabic entries in a 2-foot-thick accounting ledger for an Arab sheik suing a U.S. company. Fellin's largest case involved two years spent parsing the bankruptcy of Allegheny Health Education and Research Foundation, or AHERF.

"We found (former CEO) Sherif Abdelhak had luxury boxes at Three Rivers Stadium and even used hospital funds to redecorate the locker room of his son's high school," he said. Abdelhak ultimately was jailed for misappropriating funds.

Carlow's program includes such course work as information technology, fraud investigations, and criminology and ethics. The last one "explores things like, why does somebody making $40 million have to commit fraud," said Matthews.

Of Carlow's 70 undergraduate accounting students, 28 carry a dual major with forensic accounting. …

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