There’s a little bit of Columbo in Bryant University Lecturer of Accounting and Master of Science in Taxation Online Program Coordinator Stephen Pascarella II ’77 ’87MST CPA. He and the famed TV detective share much of the same personality: an unassuming, friendly manner, a love of a good story, and an attention to fine detail — though, admittedly, Columbo’s signature rumpled trench coat would look out of place amongst Pascarella’s professional suits and ties.
Dig a little deeper and the connection runs all the way to bedrock: a powerful devotion to the truth and a desire to know the whole story by confirming “just one more thing.” When he teaches Bryant’s course on fraud examination, Pascarella, the owner of Pascarella and Gill PC, draws upon decades of experience shining light on financial misdeeds. He’s seen just about everything in the course of his investigations — from examining missing in a family business to scrutinizing shady real estate selloffs to finding the truth when corporate ledgers don’t seem to match— but the mission is always the same.
“When I, or anyone else, goes in as a fraud examiner, our job is to get answers, wherever it leads,” he explains. “They're not paying me for an opinion; they're paying me to find out not just what happened, but how it happened.”
Being able to uncover those answers takes a broad set of skills, Pascarella says: accounting acumen, of course, but also an understanding of psychology, the ability to communicate, and a talent for critical thinking. That, he says, is what makes the field so appealing; every new case is its own challenge.
“My fraud examination course is a different type of accounting course,” he notes. “On the first day of class, I tell my students, this is the only accounting course that you're not going to use a calculator.”
Learning the ropes of fraud examination means learning from experience — and how the real world is much more complicated than a textbook or syllabus. “I tell my students, ‘OK, here's the theory, here's what the book is telling you,’ ” Pascarella says. “Then I tell them, ‘Now, here's how it's actually done out there.’”
Here are just a few of the lessons Pascarella imparts to his students:
1. Fraud rarely happens in a vacuum
Pascarella points to the “fraud triangle,” the concept that people are most likely to commit fraud when three elements are present: a perceived pressure, a perceived opportunity, and a way to rationalize their fraud. “Most people don’t commit fraud unless there’s a reason behind it. Sometimes it’s that they feel like they were passed over for a promotion, or they have a gambling debt, or an addiction, or there’s a health situation in their family,” he says. “Sometimes, it’s as simple as they look around and they don’t think they’re doing as well as their neighbors.”
Uncovering those grudges can sometimes provide a key piece of information — and a window into a world where the fraud could have been avoided. “I often tell my students, if you're ever going to run your own business, whenever possible, try to promote from within,” he offers wryly.
2. It’s all about context
One of the chief skills of a good fraud examiner, says Pascarella, is the ability to think critically — to ask why a piece of information seems out of place, or even why it seems to fit a little too well. “The toughest part is trying to uncover something that should be on the books that isn't,” says Pascarella. “A lot of the time, you’re not going to catch someone directly stealing the money. Instead, you’ll catch the cover-up, because that’s when the flaws appear.”
That means immersing yourself in each organization and investigating inconspicuously — so you can get the clearest picture possible. “Sometimes when you first get involved, the people at the company want to know, well, who is this guy?” Pascarella notes. “And so, I would say, I'm here to help the company become more efficient. I'm going to ask you a ton of questions about what you do and how you do it. Whether it's inventory, whether it's manufacturing in the accounting department, whatever it happens to be.”
3. You have to follow the evidence
A good fraud examiner means is prepared for some left turns. “You have to go in there with an open mind. You're kind of putting a puzzle together piece by piece,” notes Pascarella — and sometimes the finished puzzle doesn’t look like the picture on the box. “A lot of times when you get involved, the client might think they have it all figured out and say, ‘Well, I think so-and-so in inventory is stealing.’ Okay, fine, that's the premise they have, but that doesn’t mean it’s always right.”
Companies, and owners, he says, often have preconceptions that prevent them from seeing what’s going on around them, whether they be personal connections, or grudges, or too much faith in their own internal controls. “As you start to get through it, you might realize, yeah, there’s somebody's taking inventory like they thought, but it isn't the person they thought,” Pascarella notes, recalling a case where a company suspected a new hire of theft while the real culprit was someone they had trusted for years.
It’s the examiner’s job to avoid falling into those blind spots in their own work, which means constantly re-evaluating what you know, and what you think you know. “Occasionally you do the digging and what the client thought was fraud was a legitimate, honest mistake — because people make errors — and that’s all there is to it,” explains Pascarella. “The client doesn’t usually like that answer, but it is what it is.”
4. Understanding fraud means understanding people
Talking to people often offers the key to the case — no matter what they say. When you are asking people questions in this kind of context, you're not just listening for the answer, you're looking at their body language,” suggests Pascarella.
How you ask questions can be just as important as the questions you ask, he shares. “When you start to do an interview, you'll start with an easy question like, ‘What is it that you do with the company every day? And can you give me a feel for what it is that you do? Can you give me a feel for the way inventory is handled?’ ” shares Pascarella. “And then slowly but surely, you ask the most difficult questions, and that puts them under pressure — and then they'll react differently.”
Those reactions can be subtle but telling to someone skilled in reading them. “Do they blink just then? Did the pitch of their voice go up? Did they start to speak faster all of a sudden? Do they look straight at you, or did they look high to the left or high to the right?” reflects Pascarella. “All those things are important.”
5. Accountants, and fraud examiners, are in demand
Investigating duplicity is a booming business, notes Pascarella. “I tell students all the time: We need more people in the accounting profession, and not to pigeonhole themselves,” Pascarella says. “There's so much more you can do with your education.” Earning your certified fraud examiner (CFE) certification offers entry to a host of careers around the world, including public and private accounting, banking, working in a law or even the FBI.
There’s potential for fraud in every organization, from multinational corporations to small nonprofits, Pascarella notes. “I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned over my career,” he says. “Trust no one.”