Shake-Up Inside Forensic Credentialing Organization

ProPublica Staff

Washington, DC, United States (ProPublica) – by Leah Bartos, Special to ProPublica

This story was co-published with Frontline

There’s been a major shake-up in one of the largest organizations that certifies forensic experts.

The group, the American College of Forensic Examiners Institute (ACFEI), quietly put up for sale its forensic accounting division – one of its most prominent programs – prompting the unanimous resignation of that division’s entire advisory board. The volunteer accounting board oversaw ACFEI’s certification program for experts in financial investigations.

The upheaval at ACFEI comes in the wake of a series of reports that have raised questions about the credibility of the organization’s certification programs, notably the FRONTLINE/ProPublica joint investigation, The Real CSI, which examined the organization’s rigor in certifying forensic experts.

Three of the board members who resigned say their efforts to bolster their division’s credibility were being stymied.

“I don’t think we were getting the support that we needed to carry out our duties. And from an ethical standpoint, the right thing to do is leave your position when you can’t do what you’re basically hired to do,” said Michael Kessler, a past chair of the accounting board and member of ACFEI since’94. Kessler and two other board members said they were never consulted about the sale and were left with no other choice but to resign in protest.

In a statement, ACFEI said it planned to spin off the forensic accounting program for reasons “related to organizational efficiency” and pledged to only sell it to a buyer that would maintain rigorous credentialing standards.

“The company can only develop excellence in so many directions at the same timeand is transferring ownership of the credential to accounting professionals to further strengthen it,” the statement said.

ACFEI offers certification courses in various other aspects of forensics, including nursing, social work and criminal investigation, and the group has also established related associations offering coursework in other disciplines, including psychotherapy and integrative medicine. One of the associations, the American Board for Certification in Homeland Security, has garnered support from the U.S. Navy in recent years, which has paid more than $12 million for more than 10,000 sailors to obtain certifications from the ACFEI-affiliate since 2008.

It appears that troubles between ACFEI and the accounting division had been building for some time.

Last year, board members say they were surprised to learn that ACFEI had lost the rights to use a longstanding aspect of its brand, the acronym “Cr.FA” – which signifies Certified Forensic Accountant – as the result of a trademark lawsuit.

According to documents filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, ACFEI had failed to actively defend its ownership of the title, and essentially let it slip away.

After discovering the loss of the trademark six months after the fact, board members rushed to advise hundreds of forensic accountants around the country to remove the acronym from resumes and business cards. ACFEI did not respond to FRONTLINE’s repeated requests for comment on the trademark litigation.

As FRONTLINE and ProPublica reported in The Real CSI, there are no national standards for forensic experts. Credentials such as the ones offered by ACFEI are voluntary, but they are often relied upon as a shortcut to assess the credibility of an expert witness at trial.

“It’s up to the judge whether a witness is qualified as an expert – which is true -but when you take a look at the dockets, they’re jammed,” said Suzanne Hillman, a CPA who often testifies in financial fraud cases in the Washington, D.C. area. “You see certification, it gives you a little bit of a feeling of comfort.”

Hillman said she sought ACFEI’s Certified Forensic Accountant credential because, “I knew I had a wealth of experience and was seeking to add the credential that would, in essence, summarize that quickly.” Hillman also joined ACFEI’s forensic accounting board, but resigned at the end of 2013, similarly disillusioned with the organization.

Hillman has since removed Certified Forensic Accountant from her title.

She believes the lack of regulation on certifying experts damages the entire justice system. “To the judges, jurors and lawyers, I don’t think the message has totally gotten out to them that there’s problems with some of these credentials,” Hillman said.

Jeannette Koger, vice president of member specialization and credentialing for the American Institute of CPAs said the lax standards also make it harder for people to know the quality of the experts they are hiring, often at a high price.

“This causes confusion in the marketplace and can potentially cause consumers great harm,” Koger said in an email. “If they receive unqualified or poorly qualified representation their expert can be challenged in the courtroom, resulting in an adverse judgment.”

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