Perspectives

Fighting financial crime: a true story

In conversation with author and academic Dr Kelly Richmond Pope
Fighting financial crime: a true story

Kelly is leading a one-woman-charge to shine a spotlight on the issues that surround financial crime. She’s a forensic accountant on a mission to share her work not just with her students or peers, but the wider world. Because the topic sure needs a better story.

Packed with perpetrators, prey and whistle-blowers, she shares how the characters that make up these extraordinary crimes are often no different to the rest of us. What’s important is to understand is what’s going on under the surface.

We were lucky to grab some time with Kelly to hear about her work – and the story she’s telling around financial crime.

“It all started very early. I took my first accounting class in my freshman year in high school. It was at that point that I realised that I was very interested in how money was managed, accounted for and protected.

While I was still in school, I witnessed my neighbour being taken off to federal prison for bank fraud and money laundering. I kept thinking that adults can act really badly sometimes – and wondered why someone would risk everything to live this way.

I then went on to major in accounting at North Carolina A&T State University and became a college professor. I’m a second generation professor – like my father. He encouraged me to get my PhD in accounting, and my research area was the ethical decisions and ethical reasoning of accounting students.

My focus area became fraud. People are often uncomfortable when it comes to talking about money, and fraud falls into this category too. That’s why I was interested in shining a spotlight on it and making it easier to discuss – through real-life stories and examples.”

“What drives people to make bad decisions and risk everything? I’ve always been interested by the human side of financial crime.”

“I wanted my work to help people and have meaning. I wanted an audience for my work, and I wanted my stories to place value on the truth-tellers.

In the financial crime world, we certainly have villains. And their side of the story often gets glamourised through TV series and documentaries – but in this dark underworld we also have some real-life heroes we should be shining a light on. So what started as an academic research subject has turned into a global campaign with a book, documentary, TED Talk and media interviews.

That’s been a really important part of my work alongside my teaching and academic research. I’ve always found it frustrating when really valuable research stays confined to small cohorts of peers or academic journals. So throughout my career I’ve looked for opportunities to share my work in a larger public forum. Although I didn’t seek the spotlight, I didn’t shy away from it either and the more public aspects of my work grew organically.”

“I wanted my work to have meaning. To have an audience. To tell stories that placed value on the truth-tellers.”

“The criminal investigation into a fraud doesn’t give us all the answers. A case is solved, a person or group of people are prosecuted, but we’re left with some important questions. It may tell us how the crime started and who the main players were, but what about the environment that allowed the crime to happen in the first place?

The story is much bigger than just the crime. There are a lot of people, who know a lot of things. I’m not suggesting that they could be involved or even able to solve the issue as individuals, but when you start talking to people, they’ll say: that policy was odd to me, that control never worked, we always overrode that to get our work done.

We used to think “that’s them, not us.” There used to be this stereotype of a criminal, and it was never a white-collar person. But the people who commit financial crimes like fraud now are indistinguishable from you and me. It’s the businessperson, executive, staffing officer, bookkeeper: anyone with access. These days so many of us have access to a company credit card or can make decisions that allow your company to be abused.

We can all find a justification for what we want, and all fraud starts with: we trusted someone.”

“There are two stories within a crime: the crime itself, and the conditions that allowed it to happen.”

“In my book, Fool Me Once: Scams, Stories and Secrets from the Trillion Dollar Fraud Industry, I tell the story of fraud through people and stories – from perpetrators motivated by different reasons to innocent victims and brave whistle-blowers.

We often think financial crime is about just money, and that it only affects companies. The truth is that most crime is financial crime or has money at its foundation, yes, but its perpetrators and victims are all too human. I wanted to put faces to the crime.

For example, a case from my book that really stuck with me was someone who worked as a compound pharmacist, mixing the drugs to sell to pharmacies. To make some money to clear a tax bill and pay a donation to his church, he was taking chemotherapy drugs for stage four cancer patients and spreading the medication across more medicines. Patients were injecting themselves with saline solution when they thought they were tackling their cancer. A financial crime that looks anything but.

What ends up in the financial statement is one data point out of place. The decisions, stories and people behind that single data point reveal so much and unveiling them is helpful to preventing them.”

[Editor’s note: check out this episode of our Green Room podcast, where we explore financial crime – from what it is to various examples and how to tackle it – with two guests who have dedicated their careers to fighting it.]

Kelly with her students at DePaul University

“Watching the way whistle-blowers suffer has been the hardest part of this work. It shouldn’t be uncomfortable to come forward with the truth. Whistle-blowers are vital to uncovering fraud. Research shows that more than 40% of frauds are discovered by them – and 40% of all financial crime is now fraud, so that shows the impact just one person speaking up can have.

We’re in an interesting time in the world where right is not always seen as right, and it’s certainly not celebrated in the way it should be. Even if you’re on the right side of an ethical argument, you may not be supported. It’s very unsettling, as a citizen and as a professor helping to shape the next generation of accountants to be able to spot these crimes.

Thinking of businesses, this is where leaders and managers can play a huge role in driving the right culture. When my students enter the workplace they have the quietest voice – they’re young, new to an organisation and new to a culture. The senior leaders need to be the ones role modelling the right values, stepping up when things don’t seem right and watching out for new colleagues coming in.

If I could share one bit of advice with business, it would be to put ethics and ethical decision-making front and centre of your culture. Keep an eye on the controls you have in place and the behaviours that they can drive. Sometimes I feel alone on this island, trying to encourage and push for change when we should all be pushing for this.

The perpetrators I meet are now stuck with this single bad decision they made. These are cautionary tales and I’m careful to tell people that. The terrible repercussions of financial crime shouldn’t be overshadowed by money and glamour. I want people to be exposed to the flip-side of the story and celebrate those who find the courage to call out crime.”

“I want people to be exposed to the flip-side of the story and celebrate those who find the courage to call out crime.”

Thanks for reading

We hope you’re inspired by Kelly’s work to shine a light on the right side of financial crime. Our biggest takeaway? The more compelling the story we can tell, the better actions we can all take to address this issue collectively.

The Green Room Podcast

The Green Room Podcast

What’s the truth behind financial crime?
Read more
Show what the world could be

Show what the world could be

In conversation with Ollie Jones
Read more
Chris on illicit finance

Chris on illicit finance

Why we need to come together to fight back
Read more

Our net zero resources

Towards net zero, together

From sustainable finance to operational resilience, our climate content hub is full of resources and ideas to help you on your journey to net zero.

Ideas to help you on your journey

Climate change can be the catalyst to help us rethink how we do business. Discover the people leading the change and what could be possible for your business.