Dr. Tonisha Pinckney, CFE
Author and CFE emphasizes the importance of educating your community
Dr. Tonisha Pinckney, CFE, is not only the founder of Revelatus Specialized Accounting & Consulting, LLC, but is also a lecturer, adjunct instructor, a former director of criminal justice undergraduate and graduate programs, assistant dean and a published author. Dr. Pinckney’s extensive work volunteering in her community and spreading fraud awareness education bolsters her core philosophies. “I feel it is my duty and purpose to mitigate the impact of victimization in communities. With education comes responsibility,” she said. “As Certified Fraud Examiners (CFEs), we are empowered by our education and must responsibly use it to educate those who would not ordinarily have access to our services.”
As CFEs, we are empowered by our education and must responsibly use it to educate those who would not ordinarily have access to our services.Dr. Tonisha Pinckney, CFE
New Jersey, U.S.
The case that comes to mind was from 2012 to 2015. The engagement began as a high-end bookkeeping role. The organization happened to be a church and they used Excel spreadsheets to keep track of donations and expenses. The organization wanted a construction loan and needed the records in Quickbooks for CPA review and statement as to sustainability. An additional request was for projection exploring the cost of the loan, potential increase in membership, increase in donations, ability to rent space and other income-producing factors. This work morphed into strategic planning services.
While transferring the Excel spreadsheets to Quickbooks, I quickly began to find discrepancies. The bank statement dates did not coincide with information on the spreadsheets. The check numbers and amounts did not match invoices or bank statements. Amounts were rounded and then aggregated making “drill down” and matching extremely difficult. I raised the issues with the leaders of the organization, keeping an open mind. I was clear that the issue could be improper bookkeeping rather than fraud and suggested a deeper review.
To properly ascertain the flow of cash into the organization, I visited the church’s morning and midweek services on random dates, performed official but casual interviews of key persons and began information gathering from external sources. I then decided to pause the investigation to do a fraud risk assessment, which yielded much-needed direction. Had this started as a fraud investigation, I would have performed a risk assessment at the onset. The assessment revealed extreme issues with lack of internal controls, segregation of duties, oversight, accountability and access to funds — just to start.
Upon further investigation, I found that people in the church were removing money from the offering plate by schemes such as placing in a $10 bill to get change (only wanting to donate $5). The person would then remove $20 in various denominations. The person in charge of counting the intake was allowed to hold on to the cash, sometimes in her purse, until the end of the church service. She would often count the checks and only include minimum cash. The usher, who helped collect the offering donations, was also the secretary and the person who made the deposits. The bookkeeper was the person in charge of counting the money. The trustee, who had certain disabilities, placed extreme trust of the secretary and bookkeeper, disallowing close monitoring. This resulted in a letter from me to the pastor/CEO discussing the preliminary findings and the high likelihood of fraud.
In the end, it seemed everyone was stealing except the pastor. The pastor did not take a salary and only accepted minimal reimbursement of expenses due to the declining funds and donations. The bookkeeper’s son, the church drummer, stole checks from his mother’s car and used them for small purchases. The secretary and bookkeeper, both paid $200 per month for services, colluded to withdraw large amounts as “advances on future salary” without ever paying back the amounts. In many cases, those embezzling funds did not reveal to their colluders that they were taking additional amounts.
In one instance, I found that someone wrote a check to their home energy provider using the church checks. The checks had the correct amount and invoice number. However, the account number on the check did not match the church account. When the energy company received the check, the payment was applied to the individual’s energy account rather than to the church’s energy account — resulting in loss of electricity for the church.
The engagement had several levels, lasted almost three years and resulted in no arrests or sanctions. The church did implement several changes that included: clarification of roles and functions, internal controls procedures, donation changes (no more passing of the donation plate), accountability, reduced access to checks and credit cards, changing the bookkeeper and the secretary, training of the trustees and much more, as was outlined in my final report. I am now a consultant with the church as an ongoing service provider for CFO duties. One of those duties is to advise on matters related to how funds are used and by whom. Eventually the “problem” staff left the organization — perhaps because their cash cow was put to rest. The impact on the church, the community it served and the morale of the parishioners was detrimental, but the church is now surviving, growing and working toward long-term sustainability. It was sad to see an organization that was capable of being the light in a struggling inner-city community nearly fail due to the greed of a few and the trust of many.
Community involvement is a part of who I am. I cannot imagine sitting on the sidelines watching things happen. Many of us take to social media to complain. I do that, but I also work to make a difference. As someone who has been victimized in many ways, I feel it is my duty and purpose to mitigate the impact of victimization in communities. With education comes responsibility. As Certified Fraud Examiners (CFEs), we are empowered by our education and must responsibly use it to educate those who would not ordinarily have access to our services. We can speak about subjects such as elder abuse to law enforcement, legislatures, banks and other decision-making entities, or we can go to nursing homes, retirement facilities and family resource centers to educate and advocate.
I see way too many minorities, low-income, elderly and differently-abled individuals victimized because lack of knowledge made them suitable targets. I work with victims to choose paths that can protect them and their assets (now and future). We should not wait for a victim of domestic violence to have their identity stolen before we let them know what they could have or should have done. We do not have to wait until a new minority business owner loses all they have due to credit card or occupational fraud. We can wait and charge them large fees to address the problem or we can campaign to educate new business owners in minority communities to consider fraud risk when starting their business.
Education is power, but the educator is only powerful if they share the information. To me, educating and advocating for and within the community is a necessity, not an option. We have a duty to fight fraud whether or not the person can afford our services. Of course, we cannot do so to the detriment of our own business or livelihoods. (I learned that the hard way). My suggestion is to incorporate pro bono, education/awareness and advocacy work in everything that you do. When you finish an engagement, think about how you can use what you learned or the income you received to assist those who could not afford or do not have access to those services. Lack of knowledge is not only lack of power; lack of knowledge is a barrier to equality, equity and inclusiveness.
My first book “I AM MORE – The Journey” was released in 2009. I did so as a way to help other survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. Writing has always been an outlet for me. I write prose and poetry related to everyday topics: leadership, personal and professional development, emotional triggers, victimization, offending, relationships and more.
“My Turn to Lead: Fundamentals of Leadership and Influence for New and Emerging Leaders” was written after leaving a hurtful and volatile workplace. After that experience, several mentees and social media connections suggested that I compile lessons on leadership. The book includes lessons I drew from key leaders and authors in various industries. There is a plethora of leadership books, but “My Turn to Lead” is written to give confidence to the individual who is told they will never be a leader, are ill-equipped to lead or do not have a suitable mentor. It is meant to educate and inspire.
Being an author is not easy, unless you are someone who truly has something to say. Doesn’t everyone have something to say? Not necessarily — everyone has a voice, but not everyone has something that they feel others should know. I suggest future writers develop a plan, find their voice and audience through speaking engagements and blog writing, create a space dedicated to writing, and care less about how many books you sell. Yes, like all authors I want to sell books, but I also do it for the joy.
Likely, I would not have earned my masters in criminal justice or my doctorate in criminal justice and criminology had I not studied for the CFE credential. The study process, especially the four main areas, opened my eyes up to the interdisciplinary nature of financial crimes. I wanted to understand more about the rationalizations and justifications of crime in general and fraud specifically. Also, it gave me an opportunity to have more than one career or stream of income. Even as a professor, I can teach business, accounting, leadership, criminal justice, financial (white-collar) crimes, criminal justice, criminology, profiling, behavior and other courses connected to the theories of victimization. The CFE was not just a cumulative credential, it was a gateway.
I absolutely love comedy, church, video games, cooking, writing poetry, eating (I love eating), and making people smile and laugh. Since writing is a job and a hobby, I get to play around with various writing styles and topics. I even have a pseudonym that I use to have a little fun with my writing. In short, regardless whether I am the president of a board of trustees, business owner, mother, author, speaker, educator or advocate, I enjoy life. Taking time for myself and my family gives me the strength to forge ahead.
ACFE membership is open to individuals of all job functions, industries and levels of experience who are interested in the prevention, detection and deterrence of fraud. If you want to level up your anti-fraud career, we can help.